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.