Education is both a national crisis and a political issue of momentous significance. Tragically, on the education issue, our two major parties are intellectually bankrupt. The Democrats have sublet their intelligence and their independence on the issue to the major schoolteachers' union--the National Education Association. In 1980, the NEA put 311 of its members on the Democratic convention floor as delegates and six full pages of its jargon into the party's platform, including the promise of "federally funded teacher centers in every state (which) should address such issues as bilingual, multi-cultural, non-racist and non-sexist curricula." Honest. Page 39.
While the Democrats are hostage to the political clout of the union, the Republicans are prisoners of the cant of their president. In response to the national commission's "tide of mediocrity" indictment of our schools, President Reagan courageously reaffirmed his support for organized worship in the classroom and the abolition of the Department of Education. On matters educational, Reagan is simply not relevant.
A man who is very relevant in the current debate over the fate and future of our public schools is the second-term Republican governor of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander. In a state where just over half the adults are high school graduates, Alexander is devoting himself and his administration almost totally to the passage of his Master Teacher program, which would pay better teachers more than not-better teachers, and evaluate teachers' performances every five years.
A Peter Hart poll, not conducted for the Republican governor, showed 67 percent of Tennessee voters willing to spend more to improve public education even if it included tax increases. So much for timidity. By a margin of better than 2 to 1, the state's voters support the governor's efforts to reward outstanding teachers and monitor all teachers. Apparently, Tennesseeans believe that public education primarily involves the student business and only secondarily the teacher business.
Opposing the governor and his publicly expressed willingness to fight for higher taxes to pay for his plan are the NEA and its Tennessee affiliates, who have gone to the mattresses over the issue. The teachers' union argues that there is no adequate method of evaluating teachers and that all teachers deserve to be paid more. The fact that states regularly evaluate, with minimum complaints, cosmetologists, morticians and physicians counts for little with the union.
Alexander, who defeated the education association- endorsed candidate last November, sees public school teaching now as a profession of "low wages, lifetime contracts, little evaluation and not one penny of reward for outstanding performance."
The real public debate over education right now is going on in places like Lamar Alexander's Tennessee, not in Washington, where, on education, the lines are hardened and the thinking is soft.