Your Education Vote

Nov 2, 2012

I’m repeatedly asked, “Which Presidential candidate offers the best set of educational policies?” After Katrina and now in the context of Hurricane Sandy I reply, “The candidate who sees people stuck on rooftops more as citizens than as test-takers.”

Too many people are essentially held mercilessly by their social statuses to face an eminent threat. Katrina provided the quintessential example, and Sandy punctuated the point. Flooding and power outages are not the worst of the calamities involved with natural disasters. An inability to leave natural and man-made disasters is. The incapacity to participate in one’s own recovery may be worse.

American educationists describe a “basic education” as the learning and knowledge required to participate in a democracy. Successful completion of high school is supposed to give residents the ability to live wholly in a community. But education scholars have known for 25 years that at least two years of college has essentially become the baseline.

Job readiness is what most people see as the benchmark for meeting the basic standard. Slowly but surely, citizenship has been removed as a goal of education. When was the last time pundits flashed voting rates as indicators of educational progress? The most important expectation of Civics class has been reduced to mastering a set of items on a standardized test.

To that effect, “gap closing” has become a national goal. Since Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind legislation, federal education policy has not drove an agenda that makes full participation in a democracy as the chief goal. The Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation programs sought to raise the bar and find new ways to close the gap. Both Presidential candidates, with some deviations, seem satisfied with this approach.

Gap closing is not a goal; it’s a measure. There are simply too many nefarious ways to reach a numerical benchmark. If someone suggested that we close the black-white achievement gap by not educating white people, that person would be thrown out the conversation (maybe out the country). However, districts suspend and expel predominantly black students at alarming rates in the name of school culture and gap closing. We summarily fire teachers in the name of gap closing. In other words, leaders and policy will violate basic principles of citizenship in order to close the gap.

We should look to the lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to determine how federal education policy should reward progress and address educational malpractice. Natural disasters reveal that we have second-class citizens in major cities and towns. All federal policy, including education, should aim explicitly to shore up citizenship.

Education is a major correlate and/or predictor of income, political influence, car and home ownership, health, housing and incarceration. Education is a means towards those basic ends. Getting high marks on statewide exams isn’t basic. Having the capacity to evacuate and rebuild after a storm is.

Therefore, vote for the candidate who sees you more as a citizen than as a test-taker.

Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.