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The “Rahmney” Plan For Education?

At a time when the country is obsessed with the idea that all comity is lost and bipartisanship is dead, education writer Ben Joravsky makes a point that we’ve tried to get at on this blog: there are some important domestic issues where the parties have much in common.

Joravsky doesn’t like the bipartisan education consensus, and he’s more interested in attacking Rahm than supporting Romney, but this only helps him get the point across.  As he writes in The Reader,

In my role as the education guy at the Reader, I’ve dutifully read Mitt Romney’s position paper on public education—a feat I doubt even Romney has accomplished.

You can read it yourself, if you’re up for the challenge. It’s called “A Chance for Every Child” and it’s only 30-some pages long, even with all the footnotes intended to make it seem like a scholarly dissertation as opposed to a salvo in a presidential campaign.

Here’s the big takeaway for Chicagoans: in many respects, it reads like it could have been written by our very own union-busting, charter-school-loving Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Yes, that’s right—Republican Romney and Democrat Rahm are like two peas in a pod when it comes to public education. It’s a little ironic given that Romney blames President Obama—Emanuel’s former boss at the White House—for everything that’s wrong with education today.

And, Joravsky points out, there is another point of similarity between the former Governor of Massachusetts and the current Mayor of Chicago. They don’t much like teacher unions.

For Joravsky, this is mostly about political cowardice in the White House and about Democrats who refuse to do the right thing, but whether you agree or not, it’s clear that the education debate in the country has moved, in both parties, toward education reform and against teacher unions.

Education isn’t the only issue on which there are points of bipartisan consensus; the list of foreign policy issues on which Barack Obama and George W. Bush agree is a good bit longer than the Nobel Peace Prize Committee thought when it awarded President Obama his Nobel.

But to stick with education, the best part of the emerging bipartisan consensus is its emphasis on competition and choice. Not all parents may be equipped or prepared to make smart choices about their children’s education, but many do — and America’s education policies should consciously seek to support that unique parental role.

This is what I like about the charter school idea — that it gives even low income parents more choice about where their kids go to school, and it turns families and students from the helpless subjects of an education bureaucracy into consumers choosing what schools and what educational philosophies to support.

But education reform can’t just be about empowering parents, and this is where I have a little more sympathy for Joravsky’s qualms about the “Rahmney” consensus. Simply reducing teacher pay and job security, and turning teachers into scurrying wage slaves under the iron thumb of profit hungry national charter school chains won’t fix education either. And while quantitative tests have an indispensable place, they cannot be the be-all and the end-all of education reform.

Put this another way We don’t just need to empower parents; we need to unleash the creativity, enhance the autonomy and protect the dignity of teachers. This isn’t just about labor relations or pay scales. Teachers are important people and role models for children. Children need to grow up around confident and thoughtful adults.

We don’t just need to promote school choice for parents and students. We need to promote professional choice for teachers. In an ideal world, different teams of teachers could organize together into their own schools and, subject to some basic limits, could offer a distinct educational approach. Parents could choose what teacher cooperative they thought was best for their kids, based on everything from educational philosophy to the electives and activities a particular teacher group offered.

The cooperative schools would contract with the local government and each coop would have a lot of flexibility in how it spent money. Teachers involved in these schools wouldn’t be employees of a large bureaucracy; they would be partners and associates in a firm. There would have to be some kind of basic requirements and standards set out in the contracts that allowed the schools to operate, but instead of being “evaluated” by politicized school bureaucracies based on ‘fad du jour’ criteria, the schools would ultimately stand or fall based on the community reputations reflecting the experience that neighborhood families had of their work.

Teachers and parents gain power and autonomy in this model; it’s the bureaucrats, the administrators and the cockamamie consultants who lose power.

In some cases these coops would be formed by professionally trained teachers; in others, parents who met some basic requirements from a group of families or a community could set up a coop of their own — allowing educated parents who want to spend more time with their kids to be paid for teaching. One model might be that a small group of career teachers would recruit recent college grads who wanted to teach for a few years; in time the young folk could either move to other jobs, join the coop where they worked, or start a coop of their own. The expertise and community reputations of the master teachers would anchor the group and ensure a steady stream of new pupils based on their reputation in the community. There’s nothing wrong with having large chains and for profit entities competing in the educational market, but promoting locally owned and managed teacher-led schools can help keep the big operators on their toes.

We can’t get there tomorrow, but this is the general direction in which we need to be moving. Charter schools are a first step, but even they are still too bureaucratic and inflexible. Seen as a move to a genuinely community based educational system they are a step forward; as an end point for education reform they don’t go far enough.

Call me naive, but I think that a lot of people in this country — liberal as well as conservative, professional teachers as well as parents — would like an educational system something like this. No doubt there would still be some big box schools, and in some places the model would work less well than in others, but there are ways to turn the “Rahmney” consensus into a deeper and wiser movement for educational reform.


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  • Kenny

    Good teachers are vitally important to the education process.

    But the fact is that, if it is high quality people we want teaching our kids, the ones who are currently doing it for the most part are the last ones society would want.

    Education majors are at the academic bottom of the collegiate barrel. The only things these people seem to excel at, on average, is the ability to organize and to manipulate the political process for their own self-interest.

  • Anthony

    WRM, educational systems have always centered around the eventual roles of the students who attend them (thoughts upon the mode of education proper in a Republic). The specifics of schooling in 21st century require new delivery methods and your suggestions have merit; but aims of schooling (elementary/secondary) in America WRM if tied to community-centered school must underpin both public and private spheres – and finding consensus will require patience of Job. The root question is how can the public school provide all students with certain basics necessary to their common citizenship while simultaneously addressing both diversity and ability levels?

  • Luke Lea

    Yes, charter schools are a great idea and I would like to see more of them — and bigger ones with a real cafeteria style curriculum (but a required core of history, grammar, and arithmetic and elementary physical science). In particular we need more vocational classes and a wider variety of them (including a few required ones) in order to give students themselves the right to decide what is right for them, while at the same time destigmatizing manual labor and the industrial arts. Germany takes this approach and it works for them.

    But then Germany looks out for the interests of its non-college bound young people. We, out of political correctness and “racial sensitivity” pretend they don’t exists. Now that’s racism!

  • Luke Lea

    And classism too.

  • Luke Lea

    [get an edit button editors and you’ll get fewer annoying typos and better prose from me — I promise you that.]

  • Alex Scipio

    Two things must happen to fix our education system.

    1. The School of Education barrier to entry must be removed. As a former Dean of the Boston College School of Education noted in an OpEd in 1984, the students at these schools are the “dregs” of the university and the “laughing stock” of the academic majors. The Education majors I knew in college had ongoing summer vacations as their highest priority in a career choice. We need our best students, not our worst. This, of course, requires higher – earned – pay and a societal recognition of value that neither can nor will accrue to unionized workers. Look at the experiences of Teach America, in which some of our very best try to teach with – and are immediately fed-up with – unionized teachers, sclerotic rules, etc. no intelligent, hardworking person willingly joins or chooses to deal with unionized workers. Unions are a relic of the Industrial Age that are fossilizing entire industries in the Information Age.

    2. Teacher unions must be outlawed. There simply is no way education can or will be improved as long as we accept them.

    Tangential to this, but critically important, is that Congress should pass legislation substantially reducing H1B visas over a twenty-year period, while at the same time providing incentives to business to involve themselves in K-12 directly. If businesses want educated workers (they do) and if they need an educated populace as consumers of ever-advanced capabilities (they do), they need to seriously involve themselves in creating the educated worker and consumer they require to prosper rather than be allowed the escape valve from their responsibility to help the society in which they want to flourish.

  • dr kill

    OK, you are naive. Well-meaning and progressive also. The problems of education in the USA are similar to all levels of government. for the past 60 years they have been run mainly as job programs for Democrat voters. Petty people on petty power trips.
    Teachers warehouse, bureaucrats restrict, and the rest of us try to have as little contact with them as possible.

  • thibaud

    This is progress: no sneers and snarls or mentions of the BSModel; Hyde-Mead has been suppressed in favor of Jekyll-Mead.

    There are large majorities to be found in support of most of the sane reform proposals, all of which recognize that good governance, not starving the government, is the key to reform.

    For good governance to occur, there needs to be compromise and collaboration between D’s and R’s. The concessions cannot all come from one side. Those who constantly slang OtherSide while refusing to give equal weight to OurSide’s excesses and abuses are not helping us move forward.

    That means specifically that the GOP has to stop insisting that “big gum’mint”, not bad governance, is the problem, and the Dems need to stop coddling their public employee union hacks.

    The number of problems that can be solved if both sides start to reach out and seek compromise is large.

    We can recover tight oil reserves – but only if the drillers are forced to adhere to strong and smart regulations on how they dispose of water, seal their casings etc. AND if the environmentalists are willing to work with the drillers.

    We can put our finances on a solid footing – but only if we reform our tax code and capture the hundreds of billions that are lost each year due to giveaways to hedgefunders and the screwy, schizoid, too-tough-while-too-porous corporate tax system AND if public pension management is made professional and transparent, as it is in Canada, Sweden and Holland.

    Many other examples, but you get the idea.

    Enough of the smirks ‘n’ sneers at OtherSide. Time to start recognizing complexity and the need for compromise.

  • Nick

    I’m not sure I understand how a teacher’s cooperative is any different than forming a corporation to run a school, or why there should be any disagreement between activists. Both options fit under allowing even for-profit education. Good teachers will be able to band together, either in a cooperative or as employees of a well-run entity. One is not the enemy of the other in any respect.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “And while quantitative tests have an indispensable place, they cannot be the be-all and the end-all of education reform.”

    Every other worker in the world is measured by how much the produce, but teachers are supposed to have their autonomy and dignity respected? I say teachers should be paid on commission, by how much their students learn as measured by testing. The education of American children is so important to the future of our nation, that teachers which don’t teach should not only “not” be respected; they should instantly be thrown under the bus. At the moment teachers are completely unaccountable for their failure to do their job and teach the children. Despite the increase in IQ of 6 points per generation of America’s children, there has been no improvement in test scores since American teachers have become unionized. That statistic alone tells us that despite all the money being thrown at teachers unions, they are actually doing a worse job every year.

  • dr kill

    Shorter Thibaud– it’s only right that we compromise with the nice Democrat proposals. Hahahahahaha.

  • David Bennett

    One child left behind was a D and R scheme, look how that turned out.

  • Gregory

    Before speaking of “we need to unleash the creativity, enhance the autonomy and protect the dignity of teachers” it would be good to take a pause and to recall that, just like with the proverbial Bell Curve for IQ, far from everyone [teachers included] has enough creativity to speak of. The majority of people – both the students and their teachers – are not creative in any meaningful sense of the word. There is nothing to unleash there.

  • thibaud

    After Romney flames out and Obama’s re-elected, you can play ball and be part of the solution, or sulk your way into irrelevance. Your choice.

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