The Education Earthquake In The Rocky Mountain State

Posted: Nov 07, 2013 9:12 AM
The Education Earthquake In The Rocky Mountain State

Voters in Colorado overwhelmingly rejected a proposed school finance reform measure on Tuesday, one which would have raised nearly a billion dollars for Colorado public schools. Described by local media as "a major overhaul of education financing that would have provided nearly $1 billion in additional revenue for Colorado schools," the measure was rejected by a nearly 2-1 margin, with almost 66% of voters saying no.

That isn't just a defeat. It is a repudiation, and an ominous one. Set aside the specifics of the measure for a moment and reflect on the message sent by a 2-1 defeat for a measure touted as pro-public education, no matter its merits.

That kind of a whooping --especially when the losing side had the full support of a popular governor, huge out-of-state hitters (and donors) like Mayor Bloomberg, Bill Gates and Education Secretary Arne Duncan and many business elites-- is a huge signal that perhaps a rupture has occurred, a rupture of the long American tradition of support for public schools across party lines and across all demographic categories. What happened Tuesday night in Colorado was obscured by other high profile elections in New Jersey, Virginia,and New York City, but the national news media should quickly get around to asking what is happening with schools that have made controversies surrounding them into such hot button issue in so many ways and in such a short period of time?

How, exactly, could a measure which such big name and deep-pocketed support lose so badly, so overwhelmingly?

Earlier this summer I spent a broadcast week interviewing various voices from the debate over the "Common Core." I did so when scores of listeners to the radio show and visitors to my various public events began to bring up the subject, and I wanted to get smart about it. So I dug in, on the air, in front of everyone. I am no expert on "Common Core," but was willing to hear from all sides on the issue.

Here is the transcript of my long interview with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a "Common Core" supporter. Here is the interview with "Common Core" opponent Emmett McGroarty, here the conversation with another supporter Patricia Levesque, Finally, here is the interview with former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and here is the long talk with the Washington Post's Jay Mathews, one of the country's leading reporters/writers on education reform --both of whom have mixed feelings on "Common Core."

My conclusion: There is no consensus position on "Common Core," but boy is there enormous energy and a lot of growing anger. "Common Core" could turn out to be a terrific thing, a floor on which to build lasting education reform under the guidance of local school boards and free of federal control, or it could become a politicized exercise in top-down ideologically-driven dictates that first drives parents crazy and then drives them and their children out of the public schools. Much depends on the local school boards and how they act over the next two years.

The "Common Core" debate is just one of many swirling around public education right now. Another is the question of financing and technology --do the schools have enough money and technology or do they need more and if so, where should it come from and who should pay for it? What sort of technology does the average classroom need? The Los Angeles Unified School District just experienced a very bumpy roll-out of iPads-for-all, and skeptics of technology-as-the-soliution are growing in number just as districts across the country get set to try technology driven innovation.

And of course in the background loom the always present issues of school violence, from bullying to the worst sort of horror that we see recur across the country with an almost clockwork regularity.

The point is the ground began moving on education issues years ago, accelerated in recent months and in Colorado on Tuesday reached a new level of polarization, and not in the traditional sense of a stand-off of teacher-union-versus-school-board over pay and benefits, and not in the way of a time honored local debate over this-or-that new 5.9 mill levy for this or that district, or whether this school needs torn down or this new school needs building. Debates over the specifics of school management have long been a feature of American local politics, but rarely --maybe never-- have schools taken center stage as issues driving entire state or even national campaigns.

The future of public education is becoming deeply politicized, and that is a very bad thing, as polarization over public education will do very little good and much harm to millions of students who just need good or great teachers in good or great classrooms getting them ready for a rapidly changing world.

Though I am the product of 12 years of Catholic schooling, both my parents, my wife and all of my children spent every day of their education lives K-12 in public schools, and to great and good effect. The public schools of America are its glory, and their governance a true expression of local control and local values. What happened in Colorado should send a shudder down the spines of everyone who cares about schools --not because the measure lost, but because public schools themselves --as a category-- became a lightning rod, a political cause, and the verdict on them ultimately a huge rebuke to the political elites of Colorado, a rebuke that could be misinterpreted as lack of support for public education on the center-right.

What in fact seems to be happening is a great awakening about the centrality of education in America, and the need to embrace effective, locally-controlled reform. I have been on the board of a public charter school system in Arizona for the past many years --Great Hearts Academies of Arizona-- which now operates 16 amazing schools with more on the way and a waiting list of thousands of students eager to enroll. These are public schools, and all across the country reform is flourishing within the public school system through amazing organizations like KIPP and many others. (Here is the long interview I did with Jay Mathews on his book about KIPP from early 2009, a quick overview to real reform and its promise in many urban settings.)

Great things could happen in the next few years in education --amazing things, rapidly spreading, effective reform and new, energized partnerships between parents, students, teachers, administrators and communities, but that cannot happen if every school district becomes another front in the national battle between left-and-right. The message from Colorado ought to be: Keep education politics local. As they have always been. As they ought to remain.

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