Sunday, October 28, 2012

To change education policy, voting is useless

Has any experiment ever failed so miserably as my education questionnaire to state legislative candidates?

I asked every candidate seven short questions about the effect of state education laws on day-to-day life in the public schools. Of two-hundred and twenty-seven candidates, only thirteen were willing to respond. No one on the legislature’s Education Committee responded. One legislator helpfully explained that “our candidates have been encouraged not to respond to these types of surveys.”

Yet (as I wrote back to that particular legislator) if the candidates answer the questions, we learn something, and if they don’t, we learn something else. The experiment helps confirm that the education policies that govern our kids’ schools are almost entirely divorced from any meaningful democratic control.

I can understand if candidates are too busy to answer every email they receive. But search in vain for any other way to determine these candidates’ stances on education. For a real kick, check out the empty platitudes about education on their campaign websites. (Examples – all from Education Committee members – here, here, here, and here.) Even if you wanted to disregard all the other state issues and engage in one-issue voting based solely on education (which almost nobody does), it would be impossible, since the candidates won’t reveal their positions.

The central feature of public education today is high-stakes testing. Yet neither party has any incentive to talk about that issue, because both parties are culpable for imposing the regime of high-stakes testing on our schools. Since all of my questions were ultimately about the effect of high-stakes testing on our kids’ education, it’s unsurprising that they were met with near total silence. Teachers, administrators, and schools, we’re constantly told, must be held accountable. Elected officials, not so much.

Of the few responses I did get, I disagree with about ninety percent of what the candidates had to say. I don’t want to focus my criticism on the people who responded, though; it’s the ones who didn’t respond who most deserve criticism, and there’s no reason to think their answers would be any better, anyway. So readers can judge the responses for themselves. Suffice to say that it’s hard to detect any special expertise inherent in our state-level candidates that would justify imposing policies on local school districts against their will.

When I asked similar questions to our local school board candidates, more than half of the candidates, including all of the eventual winners, responded. Their answers were at least as informed and competent as the few I received from legislative candidates. Because school board elections are necessarily confined to educational issues, they offer a much better opportunity for voters to express their educational values, and it is harder for the candidates to avoid revealing their positions on at least some school issues. Yet on issues at the heart of education – such as whether high-stakes testing should drive the curriculum – the state dictates the policy. Why is it a better idea to vest those policy decisions in state legislators, whose elections are largely focused on other issues, and who won’t even tell us what they think about educational policy issues?

There are lots of good reasons to vote in next week’s election (if you haven’t already). Changing education policy isn’t one of them. Apparently public education is too important to entrust to, you know, the public.

(Cross-posted at Iowa Candidates on Education 2012.)


Chris said...

And when it comes to the Presidential candidates' education policies, we have a choice between Already-Abysmal and Likely-To-Be-Worse. Diane Ravitch sums it up here.

Chris said...

You can also take a look at Project Vote Smart’s “Political Courage Test,” which asks state legislative candidates a series of specific policy questions, including eight questions on education. In Iowa, both parties dissuaded their candidates from answering the questions. (“I will not answer your questions and will be advising Iowa Democrats not to either,” replied a Democratic legislative leader.) The response rate in Iowa was 3.17%, just a little lower than mine.

As to each of the candidates running in my area (Johnson County) – several of whom are unopposed! – Vote Smart concludes: “This candidate has demonstrated 0% courage during the test.”

Chris said...

Keep in mind that these courageous legislators have taken it upon themselves to ensure that your children are taught "character education."

Unknown said...

"And when it comes to the Presidential candidates' education policies, we have a choice between Already-Abysmal and Likely-To-Be-Worse."

There is another choice. You can vote 3rd party and think about the longer term picture.

Chris said...

Billy -- That's a very fair point. The major parties have no one to blame but themselves if people jump ship and vote for third parties that actually speak to their concerns.

Interesting -- by far the best response rate to my survey came from third party or petition candidates.