The big news today will be President Obama’s budget speech, but it’s worth pausing before the storm to note that we are talking very little about what the president has always thought of as one of his signature issues: education. It’s a topic about which our preternaturally cool president has shown real passion.
The promise of the Obama presidency in this area is that he is in an exceptionally strong position to break through an education deadlock that is characterized almost entirely by false choices — a highly appropriate phrase in this case.
I have seen no better description of how flawed our typical education discussions are than Jonathan Mahler’s excellent article in last Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review. Mahler writes:
As is often the case with morally charged policy issues — remember welfare reform? — false dichotomies seem to have replaced fruitful conversation. If you support the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the students. If you are critical of the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the teachers. If you are in favor of charter schools, you are opposed to public schools. If you believe in increased testing, you are on board with the corruption of our liberal society’s most cherished educational values. If you are against increased testing, you are against accountability. It goes on. Neither side seems capable of listening to the other.
We need school reform, but we also need to acknowledge that the schools cannot solve all of our social problems. Teachers need to be held accountable, but teachers cannot be expected to resolve every problem faced by a country with growing inequalities of wealth and income. (And, yes, there are a lot of good teachers out there whose existence barely registers in any of the polemics.)
Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan have always been against framing the education issue in the false ways Mahler describes so well. It’s why they entered office with a real opportunity to move the education debate to more productive ground — and that opportunity still exists.
Washington is acting as if the budget deficit is the only problem that matters in the country. This is foolish and short-sighted. Here’s hoping Obama returns to the education debate in a substantial way this year.