Attention Deficit

This is going to be a very unusual year.

Barring some huge, unforeseen event, the news is going to be dominated by the U.S. presidential race, and that race has thus far proven to be nothing short of bizarre. It has been so focused on personalities that it has sometimes seemed as though issues don’t matter at all, but of course they do.

So what are the issues? If you have watched the debates on TV, you would think that there are primarily three. First is immigration, both in terms of our usual questions about illegal immigrants from Mexico and the current influx of Syrians and other Muslims fleeing violence in the Middle East. Second would be the problems related to ISIS, and third would be taxes, who should pay and how much.

The standard Democratic position on illegal immigrants is that we should create a pathway to legal status and citizenship. The standard Republican position is that we shouldn’t, and in the case of Donald Trump that we should go so far as to round up all 11 million and deport them.

Opinions are more nuanced when it comes to Syrian refugees. Democrats typically want to admit large numbers, 65,000 or more, to the U.S. without delay. Republicans vary a great deal on the numbers, and also on the terms and conditions that ought to be imposed on the process. Trump is the outlier, calling for a complete ban on immigration of Muslims, from Syria or anywhere else.

On the matter of the so-called Islamic State, there has been a remarkable unanimity on both sides of the aisle, at least as far as rhetoric goes. Almost all the candidates have expressed an intention to “defeat and destroy ISIS,” although they differ somewhat on the appropriate number of “American boots on the ground.” (Please stop using that phrase. I’m begging you.)

Every candidate has an income tax plan that he or she is very proud of and loves to talk about. In general, Republicans want to simplify the code, reduce deductions and lower rates, while Democrats want to increase taxes on the rich and large corporations. The way each of us hears these plans probably says more about the way we view the world than it does about the merits of the plans.

There are a couple of other terms we’ve been hearing a lot on the campaign trail, and I suspect we will hear them a lot more before the whole thing is over. I hesitate to call them “issues,” because they seem to be more like mantras, or code words, or rallying cries.

Republicans are running against “political correctness,” by which they mean that there is a liberal standard of acceptable public discourse, perpetuated by the mainstream media and the university system. Democrats are running against “income inequality,” or the notion that some segments of society are paid more money than they deserve while others are paid less. Politicians can score points with their base by denouncing these things, but there isn’t really much that anyone can do about them.

I’m not saying that all these topics the candidates talk about are unimportant, but there are simply other issues I would rather hear them address. I’d like to know what they plan to do about the budget deficit. I’d like to know how they’re going to make healthcare more affordable. Most of all, I’d like to know what they’re going to do about public school education.

The high-school graduation rate in the United States is at an all-time high of 85 percent. Fewer than half of those graduates, however, are even marginally qualified for college or a career. We all know how serious a problem this is, and yet we don’t ever seem to come up with a credible solution.

The most recent attempt was the Common Core initiative, which is likely to be the topic for debate if the candidates ever get around to the issue of education. Unfortunately, it has also become distorted by partisan rhetoric.

Common Core was conceived in 2009 by the National Governor’s Association as a means to establish standards for student achievement in English and math that would be consistent across the country and competitive with the rest of the world. It would be up to each state education department to figure out how to meet the goals.

When the English and math standards were announced in June of 2010, 42 states signed on (science and social studies standards came out in April of 2012). Up to that point it was a bipartisan effort, but that would change when the federal government got involved.

The Obama education department liked Common Core, so it decided to encourage states to get on board. It offered waivers from compliance with No Child Left Behind laws, plus financial incentives from the Race to the Top program to states which submitted a plan for meeting Common Core goals.

To many on the right, these efforts to push the states into Common Core represented federal overreach in education. They also confused the public, much of which now believes that Common Core is a federal program.

All this has led to the current standoff, where most Democrats support Common Core while many Republicans oppose it. Hillary Clinton, for example, has expressed enthusiasm for the program, and finds it “unfortunate” that parents often misunderstand its value.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has played to the base by opposing it, and has used it as a cudgel to attack the Republican governors who sought the nomination. Referring to Jeb Bush, he said, “I think it’s pathetic what’s going on, his stance on Common Core … he’s in favor of Washington educating your children.”

Given the media’s fascination with the “horse race,” the worldwide spike in terrorist incidents, and the candidates’ disinclination to talk about education, it is perhaps understandable that most of us missed a major development in this situation. On December 15, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, which specifically forbids the federal government from interfering with the states’ control of education. (It also reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and replaces the No Child Left Behind Act.)


“Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize the secretary or any other officer or employee of the Federal Government to mandate, direct or control a State, local education agency, or school’s instructional content or materials, curriculum, program of instruction, academic standards, or academic assessments, teacher, principal, or other school leader evaluation system; specific definition of teacher, principal or other school leader effectiveness; or teacher, principal or other school leader professional standards, certification, or licensing.”


It goes on, in similar language, to prohibit the feds from withholding funding in order to influence any of the above. ESSA is a major piece of legislation, passed with broad bipartisan support, and yet I completely missed it in the news.

There is a lot going on in education. Let’s hope we can find the time to talk about it.

by Kevin Fahy

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