Positive Politics: Education

None of the topics I’ve teed up for my Positive Politics discussions are easy ones, but in the interests of easing into things I’ll try to take one that’s maybe not super-controversial to start. (Of course, as with anything political, I may be surprised by what becomes controversial.) So let’s talk about education. For my own organizational purposes, I’m going to break this down into three pieces: early childhood, K-12, and college.

My Background

My background is probably relevant here. After attending two different public schools for kindergarten, I was homeschooled as a child from grades 1 – 12. My maternal grandmother spent her entire career as an elementary school teacher. My parents, after some years as public educators, blazed the homeschooling trail when it was not quite and just barely legal. Thanks in large part to their efforts I did well on the college admissions tests, was named a National Merit Scholar, and graduated with an engineering degree from a private university. My wife and I are now on year 8 of homeschooling our three children, which we anticipate continuing with them through their high school years.

Early Childhood Education

Gone are the days when we could expect that preschool-age children would be cared for by a parent at home. Our modern society is nearly based on the assumption that even if both parents are present in the home – that itself a less frequent condition than it used to be – that both parents are working outside the home to make ends meet. For those with means, children may be left in educational day-care facilities and preschools, but poorer children may more usually get left in a less beneficial environment. Research shows us that these early years are critical to a child’s intellectual and emotional formation.

So what should we do? I suggest that the government should fund early childhood education opportunities. These need not be mandatory – parents should be welcome to choose their own option such as a stay-at-home parent, family member, or private setting – but it should be available for those who would need and use it. Yes, these programs would cost money, but as an investment in the good of those individual children and in society as a whole, they would be a wise choice.

K-12 Education

When compared with the benefit they provide society, I believe teachers are one of the most underpaid groups of workers in America. We require advanced college degrees, often expect that to a great extent the teachers will self-supply their classrooms, and then pay them a barely middle-class salary. I guess then I shouldn’t be surprised – just appreciative – when I see so many teachers with such strong altruistic desire to teach. Why else would they do it?

I suggest that we should significantly increase our commitment to public education, while allowing alternative options with appropriate safeguards in place. We should pay teachers at a rate more commensurate with other professional career paths and should fund associated school programs similarly. While I think local control and direction of the school system is important, schools should be funded from a broader pool – say, at the state level rather than the municipal level – so that we don’t forever build bigger and bigger rich suburban schools while having no funding available for poor districts.

Alternative options such as home schools and private schools should be allowed, but I’m skeptical of the case for routing funds to those schools via things like voucher programs. While on the face of the argument, vouchers seem like a reasonable idea – pay for results, regardless of where the results come from – the metrics make it very tricky. The example of the No Child Left Behind Act over the past 15 years should be enough for us to seriously consider whether we really want to couple educational funding to test-based outcomes. Should assessment tests be a part of an overall institutional evaluation? You bet. But funding contingent on those specific outcomes is problematic. Metrics are tricky things – design the wrong one and you get the wrong behavior.

College education

There’s probably a whole separate post to be written on this topic, but I’ll try to restrain myself. I see two primary problems with our higher education system at present: first, that the costs are increasing exponentially, resulting in college graduates with huge piles of debt; second, that a college diploma is considered nearly a de facto requirement for most jobs.

My grades and test scores helped when I went to college in the mid-90’s. I passed up several full-ride scholarship offers at public universities to attend a private school that offered more minimal scholarships. After graduating in four years, I still had enough college debt that I was writing significant checks every month for 10 years to pay it off. Now 20 years later, the College Board reports that, even adjusted for inflation, public school tuition and fees have more than doubled since I was in college. I’ll guarantee you that inflation-adjusted salaries for parents and students haven’t doubled accordingly! The result: even more debt for students and parents.

Unemployment rates make the story clear: for college graduates, the unemployment rate is nearly zero. (2.5% in January 2017, which is in practice full employment.) For high school graduates, unemployment is more than twice that – 5.3% – and for high-school dropouts, the unemployment rate nears 8%. So the most job opportunities would seem to be available for those who have a four-year diploma. But need this really be the case? Sure, in some disciplines a significant professional education is a must. (I’d like the guy designing my bridge or the woman operating on my heart to have the best education they can get!) But many blue collar and even white collar job fields shouldn’t require four or five years and a mound of debt just to buy entry to the field. Vocational training programs should be developed and encouraged for job areas that can reasonably be done without a four-year degree.


So let’s evaluate these against our five-principle framework.

1. Is it good for the poor?

Increased funding for the education system, with funding spread more broadly, should work to help improve education for the poor.

2. Is it good for the planet?

I’m not sure that the education system has a direct ecological impact – other than that ecological education could be part of a well-balanced system.

3. Does it promote peace?

Similar answer as to #2, though I would add here that education practices that lead to more diversity in our school populations should in the long term encourage more tolerance among diverse groups, which should promote peace.

4. Does it challenge the powerful?
5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?

I’m not sure what all powerful groups need to be challenged in this area, but I would hope that the combination of more broad-pool funding combined with local control would help restrain more impersonal national forces in favor of more accessible local ones, and would empower even those in poor districts to make decisions that are beneficial for their children and communities.

[As a reminder: while this blog post is cross-posted to Facebook, I’m on a social media fast through the end of 2017, which means if you comment there I won’t see it. If you want to interact, comment here on the blog!]

[Image credit: The Blue Diamond Gallery]

4 thoughts on “Positive Politics: Education

  1. Non-controversial status quo.

    The hard question is always funding. How do we increase college tuition aid without the schools scooping it up wholesale and ending up with no net gain?

    Where does the extra funding come from for public primary and secondary? How do we justify funding only those who choose the public system?

    I still think the money ought to follow the child, not the system, but that won’t preach.

  2. As an educator (and longtime blog reader!), I thought it might be fun to comment on this one:

    Early childhood education – I agree with your thoughts and think Iowa has a pretty solid voluntary preschool setup when compared to some of our neighbors.
    K-12 – I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of tricky metrics. Schools (public, private, home or otherwise) are not cranking out widgets. And those tests politicians often like to rely upon…? They’re often designed to discern students’ level of understanding related to low cognitive tasks. On the topic of compensation, a high school friend of mine completed an apprenticeship program in the building trades (little to no tuition costs compared to my 4 year private college teacher) and was making close to 50% more than me as a public school teacher. Heck, a number of my classmates took two different math classes than me, resulting in a different major….and graduated with entry-level jobs bringing home over twice as much as my first year teacher salary ($24,500) in 2004. No educators I know enter the profession for the big bucks, however as a society, I think we can show our appreciation through increased compensation.
    College education – this is an area I’d like to learn more about. Your reasons made sense to me.

    Regarding the five question evaluation, I’d add that more money to education does not always provide a seat at the table for the less marginalized. For example, more money funneled towards schools who in turn pay curriculum publishers and testing companies…has the potential to amplify middle/upper class white values. Does that make sense?

  3. Well Dad, and Matt, if I were going to have put money down on who would actually comment on this particular post, it would’ve been you two. Thanks for not disappointing me. 🙂

    First observation: even as I was writing this post I was realizing how inadequate this length felt for really addressing the topic. I wrote nearly 1100 words and felt like I just scratched the surface, gave lots of unjustified opinions, and left a lot of questions (including my own questions) unanswered. But in the interest of brevity (nobody wants to read 10,000 words from me on this topic!) and my own available time, I settled for a level of detail somewhat greater than our President’s policy discussions on his campaign website and significantly less than what someone truly knowledgeable in the subject would write.

    Dad, to your comments – funding is always indeed a hard question. (Matt hinted at this, too.) I have a suspicion that as I write through these various topics I’m going to find more places I want to spend money than places I want to cut, and it’s not entirely obvious how we do that in ways that don’t cripple the economy. I’m going to try to assemble my thoughts on that whenever I talk about taxes. Also – I appreciate the appeal of having the educational funds follow the kid. I just can’t see at the moment how that doesn’t end up with a bunch of corporations running educational facilities to turn out test-passing widgets, and the past 20 years leave me disinclined to be too trusting of big corporations really having individuals’ best interests at heart, or even remotely on their radar.

    Matt, I appreciate your comments, and specifically the insights regarding increased funding going to publishers and testing companies who would then only serve to amplify the current dominant values. I hadn’t thought of it from that angle before. That’s a tough nut to crack.

  4. I think another thing to be considered is how adding almost unlimited access to government funding has changed the face of college. While the debt of college grads is out the roof, the cost of college itself has skyrocketed – not really because a better education is being had, but because colleges have become country club style centers where childhood is in nurtured along to perpetuity rather than being a place to rocket able minds into adulthood. You used to pay for a shared 4 walls, access to a bathing and toilet facility, a desk, a bookcase, and a bed, in addition to the cost of education itself. Now students pay for athletic centers, private workout rooms, racquetball courts, on campus activities, concerts, gourmet food selection, the highest tech high tech money can buy… you are no longer paying for an education – you are paying for an experience. Dorm rooms are posh and students are regarded as customers – who are there to get what they pay for – and that means passing classes just for showing up. Throwing more money at education doesn’t necessarily always mean teachers will be paid better and students will get more out of the classroom.

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