Who is the Education Candidate?

As a politically aware American, I become slightly concerned when the direction of the national discourse—especially within the framework of a presidential election—revolves more around lipstick than education policy. For a nation of gargantuan (albeit declining) wealth and colossal military power (outstretched notwithstanding), America has its fair share of problems, the majority of which revolve around a failing national infrastructure. These problems are glaringly obvious in cities like New Orleans and Galveston, ravaged by hurricanes and overlooked by a government more concerned with foreign investment and the bigger picture rather than the dirty smudges in the corner.

But through all of this, education is our nation’s most ostensible failure, for it reflects how far we’ve fallen from the American dream and how distant the optimism we used to share has gone. I say this because there are two ways for government to wreck national policy. The first way is through mismanagement, which seems to be the preferred practice of the current administration. Scrutinize the Iraq War and you realize that it is nothing more than a conflict predicated on a fabrication coupled with a rebuilding process modeled on a house of cards. But the other way-and by far the more pitiful of the two-is through obscurity, when an issue is taken and pushed to the back of our collective conscience, where it hopefully stays until it slowly recedes out of the spotlight. And while we sit like ostriches with our heads in the sand, it remains festering in the blistering sun with what you can imagine is the most unimaginable smell.

But this is all understandable because, after all, it’s a presidential campaign, and you don’t win a campaign by addressing the festering issues facing the nation. That just gets messy. Campaign Strategy 101 dictates that you win the election by addressing the issues that resonate with the undecided voter. These issues are obvious: financial meltdowns on Wall Street, global terrorism, and environmental collapse have dominated the headlines, and thus will dominate the campaign trail. Both Barack Obama and John McCain declare themselves the foreign policy candidate, the economic candidate, and the moral candidate capable of leading America into the future. And while all these monikers are somewhat reassuring, those of us involved in education cannot help but wonder: who is the education candidate?

But given today’s campaign, the question needs to be slightly altered. It’s not who is the education candidate. It’s is there an education candidate.

Who is the candidate that has solutions to the pressing issues affecting our nation’s children, like high dropout rates and under funded institutions? Which candidate understands the need for after school programs? And considering that 30% of new teachers quit within five years, I must humbly ask which candidate will finally recognize the plight of teachers, who often bear the brunt of the channeled frustration of the system?

According to President Bush, it would seem that we have no education crisis in America. Bush declared No Child Left Behind (NCLB) his greatest domestic achievement, a testament to his bipartisan leadership on Capitol Hill. As he stated, “Too many children in America are segregated by low expectations, illiteracy, and self-doubt. In a constantly changing world that is demanding increasingly complex skills from its workforce, children are literally being left behind.” But most have looked past the standard dogma and focused on NCLB as an aggregated reduction of the system into convenient, empirical data. And through arbitrary testing and correlating federal funding, NCLB true form takes shape: a political ad hoc band-aid that cannot serve as a substantial solution to the major issues facing our school systems.

With something as prolific and significant as education, it is strange that no real substance is being reinforced by both candidates. Barack Obama echoed both his concerns and the generic education rhetoric in Des Moines last November: “I don’t want to send another generation of American children to failing schools. I don’t want that future for my daughters. I don’t want that future for your sons. I do not want that future for America.” But then again, nobody does.

But once we look past the Obama rhetoric of change and hope, we realize that his solutions are vague and endemic, typical of the solutions coming out of the Department of Education. Obama’s main educational platform, which you can find on his website, revolves around three major principles: the “Zero to Five” plan, which focuses on early child development, overhauling K-12 education by redefining standards and increasing family and community influence in development, and retaining teachers through merit-based incentives. And while these are noble goals, they’re not completely within the realm of policy initiatives. Some-like the increased role of parents in childrens’ lives-are moral imperatives, and that hardly constitutes the concrete changes our system needs.

John McCain’s educational policy is even more obscure. According to his campaign website, McCain believes that schools should have the freedom to choose their faculty and direction, and failing schools should be eliminated. McCain also supports school vouchers as an alternative to direct public education. “If a school will not change,” his website explains, “the students should be able to change schools. John McCain believes parents should be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them, just as many members of Congress do with their own children.” This statement is confusing to me for two reasons. First, what kind of message is McCain conveying when he tries to reinvigorate the school system while offering an alternative for schools that “will not change?” Is it that they will not change, or they cannot change? Secondly, I don’t quite understand the purpose of referring to the children of members of congress. It just seemed rather superfluous given his treatise on education, and I’ll call John McCain a lot of things, but superfluous usually isn’t one of them.

Look, maybe the candidates are misunderstood and they really do have the substance needed to truly reform the education system. But as it stands, there is no education candidate. What has becomes perfectly clear through all of this is that our schools need concrete solutions to their problems. If education hasn’t come to the forefront of our national discourse, it must. Next month Obama and McCain, as well as their respective better-half running mates, will take their places at the podium and debate our most pertinent issues. And if the candidates do not have concrete solutions outlined, they should at least start discussing potential ideas that could save our educational system. If education has fallen into obscurity, now is the time to bring it back. The candidates have our undivided attention. The fate of our nation’s children, the future of this nation, is at stake. And that, not lipstick, is worth talking about.

–Eugene Lee

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