Friday, July 10, 2009

A Grown-up Gubernatorial Address on Education

No, it's not something any actual candidate has said. I'm thinking of doing a series of posts detailing what a reality-based candidate could say on these issues, but I don't expect it to be widely echoed. Reality-based discourses don't poll well, I guess.

Instead, I'm going to write addresses a fictional candidate could deliver on topics such as taxation, education, economy, and energy that dismantle some of the precious shibboleths that polticians and media use to infect our discourse. Naturally, I'm going to start with education, with a proposed discourse that is far too heavy on facts and far too light on hysteria to ever be delivered.

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and I thank you for coming. I'm here to speak with you about public education in our Commonwealth that serves all our children. I want to talk to you about the problems we face, and the solutions we have to consider. I agree with my fellow candidates that some of our approaches to education reflect a long-dead past, but I disagree with their proposed solutions. Most of all, I very strongly disagree with their fearmongering on the issue. It smacks of cheap politics for cheap political ends.

The fearmongering of which I speak is the habit of politicians to use inaccurate and dire language about our system in order to grab headlines. Governor Patrick's 'Readiness Report' uses the word crisis four times to describe our system. While the funding picture is depressing in these economic times, I will tell you that the way we educate our students is proven, and is emphatically not creating the crisis that politicians desire that would let them force through their agendas.. I know talking about data and studies won't make me seem visionary and won't grab time on the news, but I have faith that the people of Massachusetts do not need hysteria to work on the problems that we do have.

I'll tell you the direct information. There are many standardized tests that compare Massachusetts students to their compatriots around the country, and their verdict is unanimous. Whether it's the ACT for college-bound students, or the NAEP for fourth and eighth graders, Massachusetts students rank higher than those in any other state in the nation. If we look at the international TIMMS test, not only do Bay State students beat the nation, but when they are compared to those of other countries, our public school students hold ability levels that rank in the top five the world. That's right, this system that politicians want you to believe lurches in eternal crisis and ignorance is one of the best on the planet.

I personally think that if our students are among the top five in the world, we're doing plenty right. I personally believe that tearing down such a successful system for the sake of pretending to have bold vision only helps politicians, not students. I refuse to play that game. The governor has endorsed a report which pushes the idea of taking local control of schools away through forced regionalization. His Secretary of Education just announced a desire to take direct control of thirty unnamed schools for unnamed reasons. There's no basis for either one, but both ideas take power from students' families and deposits it with the governor's office.

I don't believe that civil servants in Boston know how to run a school better than the families that live near it,. I certainly don't believe those families should pay Boston for the privilege of giving up control of their schools. This approach failed in Chelsea and Springfield, and I don't know why it would work now.

As governor, I will not trample on the right of citizens to govern their neighborhood schools. As governor, I will not insult those citizens by manufacturing crises for the sake of a day's worth of headlines.

There are problems in our K-12 system that reflect challenges in schools across the nation. There are large achievement gaps among our students, and far too many of our youth drop out of schools. There are good ways to tackle these problems, but fellow politicians prefer the quick and easy illusion of decisiveness, and that will only hurt our children.

To begin with, I disagree with others who say that the solution is more of the same of what we do -- more days and more hours. The governor's statement that a child's work day should be as long as an adult's doesn't even deserve a serious reply. I believe that our children should be treated as children, not future cogs in an economic system. Learning to independently play, explore, learn, and discover is as important as being drilled in standardized tests. The greatest poison we can introduce to our children is to abhor learning, to associate it with drudgery and pain -- and that is what so many others propose.

I also disagree that the same private sector that gave us Bechtel, Lehman Brothers, and Halliburton is the one that should manage our education. From California to Utah to New York to Arizona, charter schools constantly flirt with bankrupcty as children's chance at an education hangs in the balance. It is troublesome enough that our system is built around privately run tests coming from a company who relies on students' failures to pay salaries, but I do not want to rely on the private sector for the greatest trust our society has to offer. However, so many of my colleagues in government want to farm out schools to all manner of concerns -- amorphous groups formed to claim a "Readiness Charter" per Deval Patrick, other interests looking to open the doors of a little-regulated charter school, such as the one just shut down in Boston after years of under-serving our students. All my opponents can do is point to a questionable study serving charters' interests with severe methodoligical issues.

I figured that we learned about the dangers of privatizing government during the Weld years, and I'm sorry my opponents have forgotten that lesson already.

It is true that we have, as I like to think of it, an eighteenth century system scaled up to twenty-first century proportions. An academy system designed to train privileged would-be didacts of an agricultural system is a poor fit for our post-industrial society. But we have a solution in our public education system already -- it's called vocational education.

Vocational education is a system that open up lucrative career opportunities to our students, but those opportunities are too few today. Students who are ideal candidate for vocational schools are turned away due to limited space. These schools, which give students immediately useful skills for the job market and are under local control, are the best model for at-risk students who do not thrive in academy settings.

Hand-in-hand with vocational schools are magnet schools, locally controlled schools that specialize in art, music, mathematics, or other fields. These two models offer alternate pathways toward success from the standard academy model. They also turn away thousands of students per year.

That is why I will increase funding of these schools to double capacity in our magnet and vocational systems in ten years. This means expanding shcools, hiring staff, and even building new schools. We have wasted enough time trying to make students' learning conform to our system -- it is time to make our system conform to students' learning.

I would remiss if I did not mention funding. It is true that schools demand resources at a time when there seem to be fewer to offer. Reactions have been predictable -- the desire to place blame on invisible waste, to attack education professionals, as always the desire to exploit this trouble for political benefit. The plain fact is that every enterprise that employs people is suffering as health costs spiral out of control, and those costs show up in the budgets of everything from public schools to private companies. We've taken the first steps toward taming these costs here in Massachusetts, and President Obama and his people are welcome to examine our successes as they plan on health care reform nationwide. But let's be clear -- lashing out by cutting budgets to no end, eliminating workers' rights to organize, or attacking public education is not how we solve a problem created by our health care system. And I refuse to do it.

If I am elected governor, I will do something radical -- I will treat the citizens of Massachusetts as adults when I talk about education. I will not indulge in hysteria for the sake of polls. I will not find people, communities, or good habits to blame. I will not point the finger at professionals or towns while declaring I am "non-partisan". I will not sell out our successful system to private interests in the hopes of appearing decisive.

I will defend a system that works as well as any in the world. I will rely on studies that are reliable, not those convenient to a transitory agenda. I will work with the people who care about education -- children, families, communities, and professionals -- every day. I will not divide them with an eye toward Election Day. The people of Massachusetts deserve an excellent public education system. They have that. They also deserve a serious conversation about public education -- and I think they haven't had that in a while.

If that is what you want from a governor, I would appreciate your vote."

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