One thing education does not need is political parties

I’m hoping this quote from Bruce Smith’s story about the state education superintendent candidate debate in Myrtle Beach Sunday was just out of context:

“Party matters” in public education said Democrat Tom Thompson, a former dean of graduate studies at South Carolina State University who bested three other Democrats in the primary.

“You can have the state superintendent of education say one thing but the party behind that person has to be consistent with what the state superintendent says,” he added, in a comment directed at Republicans, some of whom favor taxpayer vouchers for private school students….

The problem, you see, is not having officials who are Republicans. The problem is having officials who want to take money from public schools and pay them to parents for withdrawing their kids from public schools. Doesn’t matter to me whether the people wanting to do that Republicans, Democrats (and sometimes they are) or Zoroastrians. The idea is the problem, not the letter after the name.

The problem with Mick Zais isn’t that he’s a Republican. He could have been a Republican and been just fine. The problem is that he so firmly embraces bumper-sticker ideology. Which frankly was a shock to me. I expect retired military officers to be above that nonsense. I expect them to be pragmatists. So Zais was a surprise to me.

And I liked what Molly Spearman said right after that in the story:

Spearman, meanwhile, said the way to improve education is for people to work together.

“The job and our efforts are too important for us to squabble and not get along,” she said. “I have worked hard over my career never to burn bridges.”…

And adhering closely to a party line, to the exclusion of other ideas, is one sure way to burn bridges. In fact, that’s sort of what it’s for.

There was one thing in that party from which I can draw some comfort: The first candidate quoted was American Party candidate Ed Murray. Not that I can support the American Party, either, but I applaud the fact that Jim Rex and Oscar Lovelace are at least trying to promote a Third Way in South Carolina. And the attempt is drawing some positive attention, it seems…

36 thoughts on “One thing education does not need is political parties

  1. Andrew G

    Brad, I think it’s interesting that in Gov Haley’s Education programs from this past year, that Zais wasn’t really a part of it.

    Why do you think that was?

  2. Jeff Morrell

    Which frankly was a shock to me. I expect retired military officers to be above that nonsense. I expect them to be pragmatists.

    I am shocked that you are shocked. There are a boatload of retired and active duty officers who are anything but pragmatists. Today’s officer corps is far removed from 35 years ago.

    1. Silence

      His 10 years as a college president probably have more bearing on this than his military career.

      1. Brad Warthen

        Well, I would also expect that to have a tempering, broadening effect. Or, if it made him more I ideological, one would expect him to be more of a leftie than a rightie. But it’s faculties mostly that lean that way, not presidents so much. They have to be more practical.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    “The problem is having officials who want to take money from public schools and pay them to parents for withdrawing their kids from public schools.”

    Is it?

    I’m not sure why offering people a choice and introducing competition to the public education system is so horrible to anyone who isn’t simply an advocate for the teachers’ union.

    1. scout

      There is no teacher’s union here. I am an advocate for the child. I’ve read all the bills that have been proposed thus far. I will continue to read them and will consider supporting any that seem like they might be for the good of the kid. The ones thus far have, in my opinion, been written to benefit private schools and parents already sending their kids to private schools while not requiring private schools to be accountable for teaching the same standards or educating students with disabilities (basically the hard stuff that public schools have to do). They typically provide no incentives to create more choices in areas where there already are none, which is where the neediest children are. They typically aim to siphon off the kids that are already succeeding in the public schools.

      But I’ll keep waiting.

  4. Brad Warthen

    First, they HAVE a choice. We don’t need to pay them to make that choice.

    Second, there is no teachers “union” in South Carolina. The SCEA can’t engage in collective bargaining. Thank goodness.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Under the weird definition of “access” that I always hear trotted out by people who advocate for government funding for $12/month birth control, if you can’t afford something, you don’t have “access” to it.

      But you’re right. People do have a choice already. It’s just really expensive to make that choice. I’d like to see alternatives to public school become more affordable, and I’m open to suggestions on how to do that besides vouchers or exempting people from the public school taxes. Ultimately, if you introduce a viable alternative, public school will get better.

      Right now public school is like the Detroit auto-makers in the 1970’s. Back then, Detroit basically had a monopoly on the American car market, so the product quality went downhill. Cars weren’t made very well, they were expensive, and didn’t get very good mileage. When Toyota and Honda came over with cheap, reliable cars that got great gas mileage they started kicking Detroit’s butt.

      So guess what…Detroit got better at making cars.

      And everyone buying cars was the beneficiary.

      Competition is a good thing whether you’re talking about schools, cars, or coffee cups. If you truly want public school to get better, give them some competition.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Making “alternatives to public school become more affordable” accomplishes nothing but furthering the flight from public schools that started with actual integration of SC public schools in 1970 (16 years after Brown v. Board).

        Before that, the white middle class was deeply invested in (whites-only) public education. Almost immediately, in communities across our state, the more affluent, better-educated, most-empowered people started abandoning public schools. And about then was when the “public schools suck” meme started to take hold. And of course, removing the most empowered citizens in a community from investment in public schools is a way of MAKING them suck, by leaving behind the more hapless students and parents.

        Making alternatives — that is, flight — more affordable is a way of extending flight down the socio-economic ladder so that even the LOWER middle class can abandon the public schools, leaving those left behind in even more dire straits, without any investment in their fate on the part of the more empowered elements of society.

        We need to understand that the only way we can live in thriving communities in which kids have jobs rather than going to prison or being on some form of welfare, where we have educated cops and firemen and plumbers and AC repair people as well as doctors, lawyers and engineers is to have a vibrant system of public education, a system that is accountable to the public for accomplishing its fundamental mission.

        I just do not understand why people would want to throw money at unaccountable private operators rather than invest in a system that is accountable to taxpayers, and make sure IT, the public system, provides the kinds of education that we demand. Throwing the money to the four winds and having a blind faith that the market will solve everything just seems insane to me.

        If you have a problem with public schools, push for reform. Don’t just encourage White Flight Stage II, which is a recipe for disaster.

        1. Bryan Caskey

          “Throwing the money to the four winds and having a blind faith that the market will solve everything just seems insane to me.” -Brad

          Throwing the money down the hole of the existing public school system and having a blind faith that the same broken system will be made better through sheer increased funding seems insane to me.

        2. Bryan Caskey

          I don’t understand why you think that only white children will take advantage of school choice. You don’t think there are any black parents who feel that their children are trapped in a failing system?

        3. Bryan Caskey

          “I just do not understand why people would want to throw money at unaccountable private operators rather than invest in a system that is accountable to taxpayers, and make sure IT, the public system, provides the kinds of education that we demand.”

          If the private (or charter) schools don’t produce results, guess what happens? They don’t get any more students. Contrast that to public schools now. To say private (or charter schools) would be “unaccountable” is nonsense.

          “We need to understand that the only way we can live in thriving communities…is to have a vibrant system of public education, a system that is accountable to the public for accomplishing its fundamental mission.”

          I agree with you on the desired end. I just don’t agree that the public school system is the ONLY way to get there, and we need to squash alternatives in the name of the grand collective and “pulling together”. The public school system isn’t going to get better unless people have an incentive to make it better. Right now, there’s no actual incentive for public schools to really do better.

          It’s like the VA system. If you’re a vet and you don’t like the VA system, you can go pound sand for all they care. There’s nowhere else to go.

          1. scout

            “If the private (or charter) schools don’t produce results, guess what happens? They don’t get any more students. Contrast that to public schools now. To say private (or charter schools) would be “unaccountable” is nonsense.”

            Results as measured by what? If you aren’t using the same standards or the same test, you can convince anyone of anything by choosing accordingly, especially if the people you want to convince already want to believe.

            And what is the control group? Would it prove anything at all if the students the private school gets results from would have succeeded in the public school too.

            The meme that public schools are failing and all the kids needs to be saved forgets to check that the kid is in fact being failed by the public school before offering him a way out.

            Reasons why the proposals out there thus far would encourage white flight: Most of the private schools that exist in the neediest areas, where there are any, are segregation academys. They get to choose who they accept.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              Results as measured by what?

              Kids who are educated and become productive members of society. Actual results. Not tests.

              I’m still not following at all how allowing choice to more students will only (or even disproportionately) affect whites. And I promise I’m not being obtuse. Maybe I’m just a dum-dum.

  5. Doug Ross

    All schools are public schools. Any tax dollars spent to improve education in any form are a benefit to the state and the communities.

    Vouchers haters biggest fear is that they might succeed. That’s why they oppose even the smallest attempt to introduce real choice and real competition into a system that is broken in many places.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Doug, I’ve let you say that many times without refuting, and I suppose I shouldn’t let it stand out of laziness on my part.

      You keep ascribing to opponents the absurd motivation that “Vouchers haters biggest fear is that they might succeed.”

      That is about as false as anything could be.

      If vouchers or (worse) tuition tax credits would “succeed,” if they had any chance of “succeeding,” I’d be their biggest advocate.

      Of course, for the sake of clarity, perhaps we should examine what we mean by “succeed.” I have a feeling you and I would have different definitions. But I’ll check with you first before doing what you do, which is ascribe false motives and thoughts to me.

      How do you define success? I’m thinking you might define it this way: If an individual student whose parents receive a tax credit or voucher does well in the private school, and the parents of that child are satisfied.

      Am I right? If not, correct me.

      For me, “success” means that an entire generation of South Carolinians is better educated. (That doesn’t mean every single student excels. What it does mean is that we have the kind of educated populace, overall, that other, more successful states enjoy.) The students and parents who would benefit from vouchers and/or tax credits are a tiny, tiny subset of the people I’m concerned about.

      The only hope for achieving the kind of success I seek is public schools. There will never, ever, arise a parallel system of private schools that will meet the needs of the entire population, that will supply us with a generation of solid, contributing citizens — professionals, tradespeople, technicians, craftsmen and -women, and so forth.

      Even if it were possible, that would be extremely ill-advised. It would be crazy, and grossly negligent, to turn that much in resources over to a system, or systems, that we, the citizens and taxpayers, do not control.

      The thing is, we DO, by definition, control public schools. They are ours, to do with as we decide, acting through our system of representative democracy. If there is something that this or that private school does that we like, we can just have our public schools do that. We cannot require that of private schools. Rather foolishly, voucher advocates claim that public schools are “one-size-fits-all.” They have it completely backwards, perhaps based in limited interaction with the public schools.

      Because public schools have to educate everyone, they take a wide variety of approaches. There are many paths you can take through public schools, because they are big enough to develop such paths, even for children with unusual learning styles. Not so in private schools. They do what they do, and pride themselves on doing it well. But you sort of need to be, as a student, well suited to what they do. Because they don’t have the volume to develop the alternative paths. As a parent (and as a student) I’ve experienced it all — private, public, religious, secular. I got through the 4th grade with a tutor, to keep from falling back a grade when I moved from the northern hemisphere to the southern, with its inverted school year.

      And those experiences, plus what I have observed around me, convince me that we MUST have a vibrant, dynamic public school system with the full, unstinting support of the public.

      The debate over vouchers and tax credits is about further eroding the relationship between the middle class and public education. If you doubt me, just listen to the rhetoric from tax credit advocates. It drips with contempt for the very idea of public schools.

      And yet nothing else but public education will provide “success” as I define it.

      1. Doug Ross

        “How do you define success? I’m thinking you might define it this way: If an individual student whose parents receive a tax credit or voucher does well in the private school, and the parents of that child are satisfied.”

        My definition of success is the same as yours – that on an aggregate level, more students receive a better education than they currently do. Your definition of success is not achievable by putting more money into public education. We already have mountains of evidence that disprove it… we spend more on the worst public schools and show little if any progress over decades. Maybe it’s because where you spend the money is more important than how you spend it.

        You would prefer to fight for the unattainable rather then accept some small concessions on a trial basis. How does that fit into your holy grail objective of compromise for the sake of progress?

        1. Silence

          I have to agree with Doug, here. What we are doing is obviously not working. It’s possible that we’ve even reached a point of diminishing returns, where additional funding does not necessarily improve educational outcomes. If what we are doing is not having a satisfactory result, why not try something else?

  6. Silence

    I’m not opposed to vouchers or school choice. I agree we need a fix – as someone who is zoned for crummy schools.
    1) Pass a state law that each county can only have one single school district. This will cut down on some of the wasteful spending on the bureaucracy.
    2) Let kids go to school at any school in the county on a first come/first served basis. If it’s a public school, they’ll take their money with them to that school. Schools that don’t perform will get left behind.
    3) Let kids take 75% of their funding with them if they go to a SACS accredited (or similarly accredited) private school.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      1) Absolutely. I’ve only advocated that for about 23 years. And politicians give lip service to it. I’ve almost never run into anyone in public life who owns up to opposing it — as an idea. They recoil in horror at the idea of it happening in THEIR districts. What is needed is statewide leadership — which almost definitely means a governor, as the only person with a sufficiently large pulpit — to push this commonsense reform. Sanford used to give lip service to this. But he never made an effort, preferring to waste what little capital he had pushing the movement to abandon public schools. I don’t know whether Nikki has given it lip service or not; I know that I haven’t seen her push this reform.

      2) That’s one that sounds good, but how do you implement it? That is, it sounds good to parents who have the personal transportation and flexible work hours to drive their kids to school and pick them up in the afternoon. For those who depend on buses, how do you make that work. We have enough trouble paying to get kids to school now, with the much simpler zone system. When you lick the transportation problem, so that all kids can benefit, I’ll be completely on board with the PUBLIC school choice idea.

      3) No. Absolutely not, for the reasons I’ve stated, plus this one. Again, this is a recipe for more white, middle class flight from schools, as those tend to be the kids with the well-informed, highly motivated parents who will take advantage of something like this, leaving the public schools filled with kids who are not so advantaged. That’s a dynamic for downward spiral.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        More on district consolidation…

        Did you see what happened in that debate? Look at the end of the story:

        All three candidates said that consolidation can save money and save precious education resources. But they said the decisions need to me made locally, not just by the state from Columbia.

        “Locally” is exactly where such decisions will never be made. We need a statewide consolidation, or it’s nearly impossible.

        What these candidates did was textbook: Show support for the IDEA, because everyone thinks it sounds great. But assure them that it won’t happen to THEIR district, by telling them they’ll have a veto on the local level.

        The principle of subsidiarity, to which I subscribe, holds that governmental functions should be carried out on the smallest, most local level on which they can be competently carried out, and that the purpose of larger, more central structures is to perform those tasks that the more local ones cannot. This is a case in which politically, the local structures are unable to bring about the desired reform, so the state must act.

        1. scout

          I’m not sure I agree one district per county would save money. Aiken county is one district with a big administration and 5 sub-areas that each are as big as some other districts. I suspect there is a given amount of administration necessary for a given number of students. Increase the number of students in a district and the administration will likely grow to meet the need. So will it save administrative costs? Maybe, I’m just not sure.

      2. Silence

        Let the parents figure out how to get the kiddies to school, if they don’t want to go to the local school. My co-worker is late every day (stays late in the afternoon too) so that he can drive his kid to first grade. He does this so that his kid doesn’t have to sit on the bus for over an hour, which is a ridiculous amount of time for a six year old to be on a schoolbus, twice a day.

  7. Harry Harris

    Electing education officials (state superintendents) is as archaic as electing law enforcement (sheriffs). It is also poor policy. It introduces political ideology into areas that require expertise, not popular appeal and electioneering. State Superintendent is essentially an executive job, but electing the position makes it quasi-policy with no immediate (only every 4 years) accountability. It introduces everything from misinformed ideology to bumper-sticker mentality into the selection of the employee and execution of the job. Appointment by the Governor is often put forward as a solution, but that carries the same political/ideological pitfalls, often with state department and local educators whipsawed every four years as the ill-informed blame game goes on. The State Superintendent should probably best be an appointed (hired/fired) job, based on merit, and selected and supervised by an empowered state board of education. The state board now is a policy body, making policies that an elected Superintendent doesn’t really have to implement or follow. The other policy body is the legislature, setting policy that does carry the weight of law, but always too slow (deliberate?) to address needed policy adjustments. I would propose an empowered 20 member state board, 5 appointed by the Governor, 6 by the Senate, and 7 elected by congressional district. There should be 2 teacher-elected representatives. They should receive a small stipend, but be covered by the state employees ethics law (no gifts, no meals by vendors or lobbyists (no schmoozing). They should hire/fire and supervise the Supt. They should set policy, but stay out of operational decisions. The Supt should provide guidance and leadership to keep them abreast of needed information and to help build support for his/her strategies and practices in implementing state law and board policy. Expertise and demonstrated competency should be the norm, not the exception. This kind of approach would yield better stability, needed accountability, and better-qualified occupants of the office who are freed from electioneering and from direct influence by a Governor who may know nothing or be grossly in error concerning education.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I prefer the far less complicated solution: The superintendent should be appointed by the governor, and serve as a member of that governor’s Cabinet. The Legislature’s input would be the advice and consent of the Senate.

      I feel that your approach makes the education establishment into a self-perpetuating apparatus that is TOO shielded from politics.

      I want to plug the governor into the process, to encourage the governor to get serious about doing things that actually would improve public schools (such as district consolidation, merit pay, empowerment of principals, easier hiring of good teachers and firing of bad ones, etc.), rather than frittering away political capital on ideological approaches that please certain constituencies that couldn’t care less about the quality of our schools.

      Governors now have little reason to take education policy seriously because they have no responsibility for it. So they don’t.

      1. Harry Harris

        Governors often have such skewed or politically motivated views on educational policy that they advocate stuff like “phonics only” (Sanford) , vouchers (Sanford, Haley) blame teachers unions that don’t exist (widespread, Haley, Sanford) that they can be dangerous. There needs to be some perpetuation in the “educational establishment” – otherwise you get policy made by the inexperienced and ill-qualified. Having the Supt hired/fired by a diverse body with one purpose adds needed stability, but responsive accountability. Governors are elected based on party affiliation, national security concerns, state’s rights nonsense, and sometimes (Dick Riley) broad knowledge and ability. In our current polarized political environment, are you in favor of taking a chance on a Haley, Sanford, or Mike Fair setting policy without broad oversight? Each governor selects an education adviser and has frequent input into legislative, state board, and state department affairs. That’s enough.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          What I’m saying — and I admit that my assertion may sound excessively theoretical to anyone nervous about entrusting education policy to politics — is that the way things are now, with governors having no practical responsibility for education, ENCOURAGES them to be flighty dilettantes who jump from theory to theory with no grounding in the realities of public education.

          A governor will always be in more of a position to affect education policy on the grand scale more than a superintendent, no matter how you select the latter. I want to draft the governor into actually being responsible for education policy, so that he or she may be judged on that basis.

          The current arrangement lets us, the voters, off the hook. It encourages us to continue to be reckless about our choices for governor, since they’re not in charge of the largest, most important thing that state government does.

          Accept that or not, it definitely discourages governors from really caring about the realities of public education…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Also, you need to consider that no matter how great a technocrat you might get as superintendent, that person’s ability to make a significant difference is necessarily curtailed by his or her lack of real political power.

            The big decisions affecting education, starting with the budget, will always be made by the politicians. There’s no system yet devised that gets around that fact…

          2. Harry Harris

            Your “excessively theoretical” comment probably rings much truer then your seeming assertion that voters would be any more engaged and studious in their choices if a Governor were “in charge.” Policy needs to be hashed out in the political/electoral arena. We do a poor job of it, but that’s the proper place. Administration, however, needs a technocrat – one with vision, but one without political bent or beholdeness to a politician. Give me a governor with 8-10 years experience dealing closely with education policy, and I can see potential. That’s not the reality we have. With your peripheral involvement, you’ve seen the amount of misperception, disinformation and selective use of data to manipulate in the political arena Governors are apt to use. A state superintendent carrying out a Governor’s agenda in today’s polarized society can easily demoralize educational staff and the students they serve. We’ve had too many “simple” solutions for complex problems. Our political climate is too oriented toward quick fixes for things that can’t be fixed quickly. We need inclusion, long-term views, and and enough vision to say “no’ to simplistic fixes and this-year’s-new-thing. Governor Riley was under the same system we have now. He was a great mover in education reform because of who he was. Such governors are rare around here.

        2. Silence

          Having a professional manager hired by a committee of (fairly unaccountable) elected officials does not tend to lead to good results. See Columbia, City of and cross reference that to city manager(s).

          1. Harry Harris

            Bad comparison in both makeup of the governing body and in the scope of the mission. Those “unaccountable” council members are all popularly elected, have district loyalties, and aren’t balanced by appointed members who can be immediately removed as in my proposal.

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