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Opinion: The politics of American public education

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Washington Irving’s iconic schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, is more than a cleverly conceived character created for comic consumption. As depicted in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod personifies, albeit in an ironically ignoble fashion, reverence afforded the two most highly respected individuals in 18th century communities, i.e., preachers and teachers.

From the time we were mere colonies until the greatest generation celebrated the end of World War II, American public education has been, at its core, a political phenomenon. Local control of children’s schooling often consisted of a handful of farm families or urban immigrants fashioning a small space to create an environment in which children of various ages and abilities gathered to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. Hollywood’s version of this has been immortalized by Miss Beadle’s one-room schoolhouse in “Little House on the Prairie.”

These “good ole days” have now been replaced with beautiful buildings and 21st century virtual learning tools, but the politics remain the same.

Elected officials, whether they be school boards, legislators or U.S. presidents, make political decisions that impact schooling throughout America. The Council of Chief State School Officers – comprising state superintendents of schools, commissioners or directors either appointed by governors, elected by popular vote or hired by state boards – manage and lead initiatives to support education in their respective states. All struggle to mediate issues associated with localized, grass roots perspectives on schooling versus state mandates or “rules.”

Federal laws address issues deemed to be associated with basic human rights, such as compulsory attendance, special needs and access. Regarding the latter, political grappling over vouchers and private systems of education continue to divide our country.

Parents’ rights to determine what they believe is best for their children seem to be pitted against the general good. For example, will tax breaks, vouchers and/or incentives to support parental choice inadvertently be detrimental to the growing number of families living in poverty who cannot take advantage of these opportunities? Put another way, will decisions based on political ideology create a division that benefits some school children and harms others?

Preparing the education workforce also is political. College and university teaching prep programs are required to ensure graduates meet state requirements and pass a licensure exam to become certified to practice. While this has been in place for over 100 years, higher education “report cards” documenting inputs and outcomes are now required and made public. The grade for each of these programs is intended to compel them to improve, provide future educators information they can use to make choices and assist employers with hiring decisions. The politics behind this approach is based on the notion that lesser programs will improve and the best programs will grow, thereby producing more highly competent educators.

Some school board elections are still decided by single-digit margins. Some leadership positions hang in the balance of vendetta. Curriculums are all too often determined by personal opinion. Local control is pitted against state requirements that must follow federal mandates. Some 250 years after colonists in New England used “old deluder Satan” to scare learning into children, we are still struggling to figure out what is best for children and who is in the best position to lead and manage the system.

Because the politics of control all too often result in split decisions, the status quo tends to become the tie breaker in terms of outcomes. At present, there is no true choice for all Americans – only for some.

The rub is in figuring out how to help disadvantaged children and families. How can the system provide equal access and equal opportunity for all?

How might our nation’s public schools be attached to public colleges and universities to create a unified system of equal education for all?

If the current systems were not governed by political entities, a stroke of the pen could make this happen.

Sound simple? Then, try to get two state boards – one governing public schools and one governing higher education – to join forces and work as one unified board.

David Hough is the dean of the College of Education at Missouri State University. He can be reached at davidhough@missouristate.edu.

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