What Happened to the Education Conversation?

What Happened to the Education Conversation?


There’s a whole lot of debate about when Republican nominee Mitt Romney worked at Bain Capital.  And it’s hard to miss any headline on President Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that” statement.  Staffers from both campaigns continue lobbing pranks and insults at one another, from calling Romney a felon to the more egregious (and subtly White supremacist) Obama “doesn’t appreciate our Anglo-Saxon heritage.”

But, when it comes to a real debate on education, both sides of the Presidential campaign appear fairly removed from the issue.

It’s not that a conversation has not taken place.  Romney literally snuck his way into heavily Democratic and pro-union Philadelphia to make a pitch on school choice and education reform.  The President has been steadily beating the student loan drum and extolling the virtues of community colleges (while bashing for-profits and private sector schools).  In a recent address before the National Urban League’s annual conference, he announced his White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans in a nod to Black politicos who want to see their skin in the election game.

What is missing is a vigorous debate on education, arguably the most critical key to our nation’s fate.  All agree that education is the answer to what ails America; the political beef is over how to implement it.  The path to fixing it is a treacherous maze of competing visions, partisan divide and nasty rhetoric.  Even during good times, education is the convenient campaign football ripe for candidate use.

Strangely enough, in this Presidential cycle, neither candidate has really pursued an ambitious mission statement on education.  Jobs and the economy take up much of the room.  Yet, all observers agree that education is the first major step to realizing economic success, both personally and nationally.

Hence, the assumption is that it would rank high among issues most important to Americans.  But, unfortunately, it doesn’t, according to leading polls.  In a recent YouGov/Economist poll, respondents ranked it #6 on a list of 13 “important” topics.  When asked what issue was the “most important,” only 4% of respondents said education.

This, perhaps, explains its prioritization on the campaign scale.

But, in that same poll, education ranks among the Top 3 issues important to African Americans.  And for good reason.  Less than 64% of Black teens graduate from high school on time compared to 82% of their White counterparts.  And nearly 5% of African Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 drop out.

For all the talk of how critical a college degree is to future success, only less than a quarter of African Americans over the age of 25 hold a college degree.  In the meantime, as the nation becomes much more culturally diverse, it finds itself ranking 10th in global graduation rates, with the graduation rates of 25 to 34 year olds fairly stagnant compared to 30 years ago.

Interestingly enough, the majority of African Americans college graduates are actually coming out of private sector and career colleges, despite controversy over school loans and tuition rates.  That’s a development which should prompt Obama Administration officials to find out exactly what those schools could be doing right in comparison to traditional colleges – and even Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Nowhere is this conversation more critical than in the Black community.  At some point, something has to give, from the crumbling underfunded school districts to the safety hazards and rampant bullying in the schoolyard.  Even as the Black middle class struggles through recession Black families are pushed into double taxation in the quest for better schools.  On one hand, they pay for underperforming public schools through taxes while on the other hand they feel forced to scramble together tuition for private schools.

Part of the problem stems from a national failure to readjust both expectations and standards.  Traditional schooling methods must adapt to the changing social, economic and cultural landscape in America.  Politicians will need to wage meaningful discussions over effective reforms rather than get lost in meaningless tit-for-tats over teachers unions and school budgets. Discourse on the future of higher education should start first with how to bridge a gap between K-12 and post-secondary, while accepting the fact that a growing number of college students are going for more flexible, online alternatives.  What’s needed is a national conversation that is as innovative and energetic as the political one.  But, no one said you should hold your breath.