Time After Time

05/23/2024

We started this company during a presidential election year. The economy was a little shaky, but we were told that election years were generally very favorable for new businesses, and we also had youthful exuberance on our side.

That was 40 years ago.

If I’m doing the math correctly, that means that this is the 11th election cycle during which we have published Educational Dealer. In each of the previous 10, I have devoted one column to a discussion of some aspect of the race for the White House. I have never endorsed a candidate, not because I don’t have an opinion, but because I don’t think it is any more valid than your own.

That hasn’t stopped some readers from thinking that I was favoring one candidate over another. I’ve learned that people can be extremely sensitive on the matter, and they can easily interpret the slightest criticism of their guy as an endorsement of the other, or vice versa. Just to be clear, as far as I’m concerned, you should vote for whomever you like.

One of the things I tried to do during every cycle was to check out the professed education plans of the two candidates. Generally speaking, the Republicans promised to return control of education to state and local authorities and parents, and to encourage private options such as charter schools.

Democrats were more likely to support federal initiatives such as public preschool, national testing standards and meal programs. Democrats have been supportive of teacher unions, while Republicans have not.

There have been exceptions. George W. Bush, a Republican, vowed that he would devote his administration to education through the “No Child Left Behind” Act, but events diverted his attention elsewhere. When it comes to education, that often seems to be the case.

So, you may ask, “What do the two current candidates have to say on the subject?” I asked that question of Google, and here is what it replied.

Biden is pushing something called “The Biden-Harris Improving Student Achievement Agenda.” It purports to use accountability, reporting, grants and technical assistance “to increase attendance, provide high-dosage tutoring and increase summer and after-school reading.”

The Trump platform seems to be more about what it will stop doing. According to a press release, Trump will “cut federal funding for any school or program that includes critical race theory, gender ideology or inappropriate racial, sexual or political content.” Interestingly, it also calls for civil rights investigations into any districts that engage in race-based discrimination, particularly against Asian Americans.

It went on to state that the number of administrators should be reduced, tenure should be eliminated and men should be kept out of women’s sports. Each of those suggestions is probably worth an editorial on its own, but that will have to wait for another day.

As I was reading about the two education platforms, big red flags kept popping up in my head. The first one said, “Wait a minute, haven’t both of these guys already been president? If these initiatives were so important, why weren’t they addressed to begin with? Was it because there was some other mission that had to be accomplished first? If so, I’d like to hear about it.”

The second one said, “Where are you going to get the money to overcome the lingering effects of COVID in public schools?” The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which provided $190 billion to schools in remediation, is now winding down.

Various studies have shown that public school students lost somewhere between a third to a half year of learning due to the pandemic. It may not sound like much, but if that gap is not closed, it will create a “lost generation” of American kids who have less education, less productivity, less earning power and poorer health than the rest of us.

The data also shows that efforts to address the situation have not been level across the board. As you might expect, wealthier school districts, and wealthier parents, have devoted more resources toward solving the problem. They have hired tutors, purchased software, provided transportation, etc., and have had considerably more success in closing the gap.

Given our occupations, you and I understand better than most that quality education costs money, but where is that money going to come from? I don’t hear either party rushing to answer that question.

My third red flag had just two letters: “AI.”

Perhaps I’m not giving them enough credit, but I seriously doubt that either presidential candidate could come up with a coherent answer to any question regarding AI, including what it is. I simply don’t think that their radar screens are pointed in the right direction.

Part of that is probably a generational thing. Older people tend to think of technological advancement in terms of automation, as if the goal is to replace all human function with machines. Their first thought is always about employment and how many jobs will be lost, but such thinking misses the point.

It’s hard even to imagine all the functions at which AI can make a huge difference in education. It could start by taking over office and administrative tasks from teachers, grading papers, managing information and communication with parents and sending personalized messages to students.

What’s more exciting, AI could evaluate each individual student’s progress, determine what specific content needs to be taught or remediated and decide what sort of tutorial or presentation would be most effective. It could then create a customized video, animation, lecture or whatever. The possibilities are mind-boggling.

Whatever the reason for the presidential candidates’ lack of interest in emerging technology, one thing is for sure. We are not about to turn the White House over to AI anytime soon, and that raises my final red flag.

I know this will offend many of you, but these two guys are both simply too old for the job. They have both shown signs of cognitive decline, and you know what? That’s perfectly normal.

As I wrote this column I turned 71, which is considerably younger than they are, but there is no question that I have lost a step in recent years. Words don’t come as quickly, I tire more easily and tasks that once seemed simple are now daunting. I’m not saying that I’m ready for the scrap heap, but I wouldn’t want my finger on the nuclear button either.

Of all the presidential elections I have witnessed from my perch in the school supply business, this one seems by far the trickiest. I just hope we all come out in one piece.

 


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

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