Change Partners

01/15/2021

We started this company during a presidential election year. It was 1984, and Ronald Reagan was running for a second term against the former vice president, Walter Mondale.

One of my first editorials was about the upcoming election, and although I have long-since forgotten what I wrote, I recall speculating about the effects that a win by one party or the other might have on our industry. I did not endorse a candidate.

Over the following eight elections I followed the same template, and my quadrennial essays seemed to be well received by our readers. Once in a great while, of course, I would get a little blowback.

Basically, I could divide the letter writers into two groups. The majority were partisans who felt I was biased in favor of the opposite side. Most of them were relatively cordial, though a couple felt compelled to point out that I was a complete idiot. They were about equally divided, by the way, as to whether I leaned right or left.

The second group was smaller but no less passionate. They objected to the very idea of a political discussion in a trade magazine at all. Politics, like religion, was a personal preference that didn’t mix with business, we had plenty of more relevant issues to deal with, the whole subject was divisive, and so on. They urged me, sometimes indignantly, to mind my own business.

The former group, which accused me of bias, didn’t surprise me in the least. We’re all biased, and I would never claim to be objective. What some readers don’t seem to realize is that they also have a lens of their own, and every lens causes some sort of distortion. Nevertheless, I am always interested in hearing what they think.

It’s the latter group that I find more troubling. If anyone truly believes that the federal government doesn’t have a huge effect on our businesses, the only way I can explain their position is to assume that they really haven’t given it much thought.

The feds only control about 10 percent of the funding for public school education, but they use it as leverage to influence everything from curriculum to teacher salaries. Their indirect influence, of course, is much greater.

We live in an era of big government, so big that everything it does ripples through the business community. Each new administration in the White House affects the course of events regarding taxation, interest rates, trade agreements, healthcare, immigration, environmental protection, civil rights, transportation, labor issues, and regulation of commerce. As one of our recent presidents often said, “Elections have consequences.”

All of the above notwithstanding, I chose not to write a pre-election editorial this past year. If ever there was a year for breaking with tradition it was 2020, as it seemed as though we were always not doing something or other for the first time in forever.

In this case, it was not about the pandemic. I didn’t write about the election because emotions were simply running too hot, and nobody seemed very interested in hearing anyone else’s opinion unless it was an affirmation of what they already thought. Not only did I avoid discussing the election in print, I avoided discussing it altogether.

That’s disturbing, frankly. I’ve always thought that one of the best things about America was our tolerance for differing opinions, and I’ve always had friends and family members with widely different views from my own. Since when are we not allowed to mention them, and why not?

At any rate, the election is finally over, and perhaps now we can talk about the business of education without raising our voices. Let’s start with a word about the outgoing secretary of education.

Betsy DeVos was an odd pick to lead the department from day one. She is not an educator, nor does she even know much about public schools. She once suggested at a Senate hearing that teachers should carry rifles in case grizzly bears break into the school. (And no, I’m not making that up.)

What she does know about public schools is that she doesn’t much like them, and prefers private, predominantly religious schools such as those she herself attended. Her primary agenda, continually thwarted by Congress, was to allow students to transfer public money to private schools through voucher programs or other measures.

She also doesn’t like teacher unions, and has done whatever she can to diminish their influence. This has mostly been around the margins, through executive orders and the undoing of Obama-era policies.

DeVos’s advocacy of private schools, and her hostility toward the unions have overturned an apple cart that had been trundling along in federal education efforts for about 30 years. Without any formal agreement, Republicans had stopped pushing for vouchers, Democrats had stopped pushing unions, and a bipartisan coalition had pushed national testing standards.

Which brings us to Joe Biden. I think we can pretty safely assume that the first thing the new administration will do is revert to the previous footing, with the notion that anything done by executive order can be undone in the same manner. Private schools will be quietly excluded from the initiatives in which DeVos had sought quietly to include them.

We can also expect an about-face regarding teacher unions. Mr. Biden mentions “high-paying union jobs” in nearly every speech he makes, referring to America’s future in general as well as education in particular. His wife Jill is a longtime teacher and member of the National Education Association.

His biggest education priority though, at least rhetorically, is universal prekindergarten. He brings it up at every opportunity, never failing to emphasize that he is talking about instruction, not daycare. To a lesser extent, he also endorses other high-ticket education initiatives such as raising teacher salaries, dropping public college tuition, and forgiving some student debt.

Given the fire hose of news stories lately, you may have missed the nomination of the next secretary of education, the person who will be asked to address these issues (and a whole lot of other things). His name is Miguel Cardona, currently commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut.

Cardona grew up in public housing, in a Puerto Rican family that had moved to Meriden, Connecticut. He became a fourth-grade teacher in his hometown, then the youngest principal in the state at age 27. After earning a doctorate, he was promoted to assistant superintendant for teaching and learning, and four years later was named commissioner.

I don’t know much about Cardona, except that he has been adamant about reopening schools for face-to-face instruction. That’s an interesting point, because it puts him at odds with many union leaders, several of whom were considered for the nomination.

It’s also a point on which Joe Biden seems to agree. So do I. So does Betsy DeVos.

Our entire educational system has been savaged and traumatized by the virus. If we can find a sliver of common ground, maybe we can start to put it back together.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.