RICARDO LUIS ROJAS ESTRADA
From Fox to MSNBC, the pundits essentially declared this election to be the reawakening of the White working class voter. Our losses in the Rust Belt are directly attributable to our lack of engagement as a party with the needs of people left behind by our rapidly shifting economy. Further evidence of the Democratic Party’s abandonment of local politics is the solid Republican control of governor’s mansions and state legislatures where 31 states have Republican governors and 25 states have full Republican control of the state government. President Obama acknowledged in an NPR interview which aired on December 19th, 2016, “I do think that we have a bias towards national issues and international issues, and as a consequence I think we've ceded too much territory.”
We need to rebuild our strength at the state and local level if we want to have any shot at accomplishing our policy objectives or regaining control of the federal government. We need to advocate for a policy that is hyper-local and will engage voters in politics outside of big presidential years, but which can be led and coordinated at a national level. We need to advocate for a policy which is immensely impactful, one which people will care about and feel its effects in their daily lives. We need to advocate for a policy which appeals as much to the White working class we need to win back as energizes our urban and minority base. I firmly believe that issue is education.
Our education system is Balkanized not only into 50 states but into thousands of school districts which dictate policy on everything from curriculum to funding. The federal government is very limited in its ability to dictate specific education policy, and has to exercise power through a carrot-or-stick approach to state education allocations. The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 undid a lot of the federal requirements set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act which gives a lot of power back to the states and punctuates just how limited Washington is in setting education policy. Because of the fractious nature of the system, this is the perfect issue to tackle if we want to start reclaiming rhetorical, and by extension political, ground at that local level. I envision the national party’s role in this as being rhetorical captain of the ship, providing the policy guidance and financial support for a nationwide effort. This would involve some national level policymaking, but the focus needs to be on dominating this issue outside of Washington. Unfortunately there will not be a satisfying press conference at the end of a tough, hard-fought victory in Congress on a massive education bill. What there will be is a push for education as a central platform plank in state legislature and governor races. There will also need to be funding and support to school board candidates across the country, especially in the places where the party is weakest.
Education is something people think matters by default. Young people still have a fresh memory of having been in school; parents and grandparents want the best for their kids. Advocating for a better education for their children is a way to win over hearts and minds, a way to remind people that the Democratic Party is their party. Yet while each state’s or district’s needs may be different, improving the education system is a priority for the urban or minority voter as much as the rural/suburban voter. Everyone knows that we need to compete in an increasingly technological and rapidly evolving economy and that a good education is the foundation for increasing our competitiveness. Everyone wants us to have the best and brightest workforce in the world. The bottom line: everyone goes to school and everyone wants the best for our country’s children.
In general we have been letting our country’s children down.
While a lot of attention was paid to the cost of college during the campaign, our K-12 system is in an appalling state of neglect. Our university system may be the best in the world, but addressing the needs of students when they are nearing the end of their education is too-little-too-late regardless of the cost. Even then, we do not prepare our students for higher education adequately; in 2013 only 25% of students were ready for college in math and 38% in reading and it is getting worse. We also lag behind other industrialized nations in terms of educational achievement; our students rank 35th in math and 27th in science. If we want to compete in a technologically advanced global economy we need to lead the world in educational achievement and make sure our kids are ready for its rigors.
So what is causing us to slip so far behind? Here are the 3 big problems I see with how we educate our kids today:
We do not prepare our students with the life skills they need in a 21st century society, neither to navigate the 21st century economy nor to be informed citizens. I already mentioned that we are failing in educating our kids on the information they need to learn in class. However, we also let them go into the world unprepared to participate in the economic and political systems which form the basis of society. For example, in 2012 17.8% of students did not have a baseline level in financial literacy. Even more depressing, just this year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found only 26% of people can name all three branches of government and that number has declined 12% since 2011. If we want to grow individual prosperity, close the wealth gap, and ensure a healthy democracy then we need a workforce which can make sound financial decisions for themselves as much as we need an informed citizenry to make educated decisions on who they elect to represent them.
We do not give our students the best resources with which to learn. We know that the environment in which children are educated has a significant impact in their ability to absorb and retain information. Yet across our country, kids go to school in dilapidated buildings, or even trailers, with no air conditioning or heating, which often have poor lighting and air quality. No one would be surprised to know that these conditions are the worst where the poorest in our country live. Further, while we live in a digital world and operate in a digital economy we do not give students and educators the ability to access and adequately use online educational materials. Only 25% of urban educators and 33% of rural educators believe their students have good access to adequate bandwidth. In an increasingly interconnected and technologically advancing economy, we cannot afford to hamper the educational opportunities of our students and the tools of our educators.
We do not pay teachers enough. Our incredibly antiquated system of teacher compensation is hampering our education system’s ability to draw and retain talent in the teaching pool even though 98% of educators believe that teaching is more than just a profession and 88% of them became teachers to improve the lives of children. In the old days, the promise of health benefits, a half-decent salary, tenure, and a pension was enough. Today, however, it just does not make financial sense to be a teacher. The average teacher earns anywhere between about $44000 to $49000 depending on the grade level and needs of the students they teach. Worse, the average starting salary is a measly $30,377. We pay teachers this type of salary even though they spend 50 hours a week on instructional duties and 12 hours a week on school related activities (grading, clubs, etc) on average, according to the NEA. Consider that the average American college graduate has $30,100 in student debt and the average cost of living for a single person with no children is $28,458 and being a teacher looks like a vow of poverty. Just because teachers love their job and are doing it because they feel called to serve humanity by improving the lives of children does not mean we treat them like priests. Teachers are highly skilled, highly educated individuals which perform a necessary and vital service to society, if they are that important to our society we should compensate them as such. Consider the fact that 50% of people that enter the teaching profession leave after 5 years and that 37% of people who do not plan to continue teaching until retirement do so citing low pay as the main reason and it would appear that teachers also agree. Uncompetitive compensation is also very likely the reason behind why enrollment in collegiate teaching programs is at an all-time low.
So to fix these issues I think we need to address the problem in three ways:
First, overhaul curriculums to reflect what we know about how kids learn and what our country needs.
Because the ESSA takes pressure off of states to force their schools to produce results in high pressure exams we need to start undoing a curriculum which is geared to get kids to pass a test. We need a curriculum which from its earliest stages to its conclusions develops well-rounded human beings; happy and healthy people make for productive and competitive workers.
Bring back arts and music programs and start teaching our kids second languages early in their education not just in high school. Studies show that children who are more engaged in artistic pursuits and language learning at an early age have more highly developed brains than their peers that do not. In terms of US workers in a global market, being able to not only better meet intellectual challenges but adequately communicate with people around the world makes our workforce more competitive. Additionally, these sorts of programs would led to happier and healthier children since participation in the arts is shown to improve emotional and physical health. Speaking of physical health, in a country where 12.7 million children are obese, we need to bring back recess and improve physical education since physical activity has shown to have a myriad of positive cognitive and behavioral affects.
For high-schoolers we need to institute financial literacy and civics classes as a requirement for graduation. It makes no sense to expect our young adults to face the potential of tens of thousands in college debt without adequately understanding the financial system with which they are interacting. Such a program would also make our economy better because in the states where financial literacy education was taken most seriously credit scores increased. It also makes less sense to throw them into a sociopolitical system they know next to nothing about and expect them to make a properly informed vote. It is incredibly easy to believe fake news when you have no historical context or even the basic political context to understand what is fake and what is not. I envision a civics course which teaches the history of the American government and really goes in depth on how it functions, not just the 3 branches of government but how they interact with each other and how those relationships exist presently. I also envision such a class teaching students how to verify the veracity and check the sources of news articles and how to critically evaluate news information. The Information Era is going to demand that the individual be able to process large quantities of information and be able to pick what is good and what is not. If we do not empower the individual with the skills to do so, someone else will make that choice for them and take advantage of their lack of information, or worse give them the wrong information.
Second, rebuild our school infrastructure and give teachers and students the tools they need to succeed.
Here is where you can have your satisfying bill signing at the White House with all of the pens being handed out and members of Congress standing behind the President. A federal school infrastructure bill should be passed which would allocate money to the states to improve facilities, improve broadband connectivity, and get teachers and students better books and computers. Of course, states would not have free reign to use that money as they please. We should not have federal taxpayer money going to building multimillion dollar high school football stadiums. What we would be looking for states to do is to use the available evidence and research (provided above) which shows that by creating a pleasant and pleasing classroom environment students learn and retain information better.
While President Obama in March 2016 already committed to improving broadband access through the ConnectALL Initiative many schools still are not connected and as of 2013 almost half of all schools do not have a full-time technology coordinator. Since this is also an executive action on the part of the President, if you believe President-elect Trump, he is going to repeal that initiative on January 20. We need to enshrine that initiative into law and add provisions to that law so that we commit to improving broadband access in all our schools. Such a bill should also include funding for new and updated textbooks. States and districts should also be empowered to use that money to explore the idea of getting rid of textbooks entirely since teachers seem to prefer a move to other non-traditional methods of delivery of material over using traditional textbooks.
Third, change how we compensate teachers moving forward.
This will probably be the most controversial push since the teachers unions tend to be resistant to changes in their compensation system. Yet, teachers’ unions tend to support the Democratic Party, so we are the party that is positioned to best act in the fairest way possible to make substantive changes to the compensation system. Nonetheless, I am suggesting neither merit pay for teacher performance nor so-called ‘combat pay’ for teachers who work in low-income, high-stress districts. I am proposing an increase in the base salary of all teachers. The problem is not that we need to pay good teachers more and bad teachers less nor that we do not pay teachers in high-stress positions enough. Those are distractions from the main problem: the fact that we simply do not pay teachers enough period. Neither merit nor combat pay is going to solve the problem of low average starting salary, nor make teaching a financially sensible career choice, nor incentivize the best and brightest individuals to become teachers. Raising the base salary to a competitive level is the solution. What competitive level is depends on the individual states, but this is where the teachers unions come in to help, they are going to be the ones which are going to help us figure out that competitive salary is.
However if we are going to raise salaries we need to rethink the benefits packages that we give teachers, particularly pensions. Now before any heads start rolling, states need to meet the existing obligations that they have made to present and former teachers. However, moving forward we need to work with the teachers unions to figure out an alternative set of pension packages in exchange for higher salaries. Many states are having problems meeting their pension obligations. Even worse, in many states, teachers need to meet 10 year work requirements in order to keep even a fraction of the money that they put into the pension system if they decide to leave it early. Remember how half of all teachers leave the profession five years after starting? Most people never see these benefits, and clearly a pension is not what is going to attract people to teach. I do not know exactly what type of system would be best, maybe a 401(k) matching plan like many private and even public sector employers offer would work or maybe tweaking the current pension system to be fairer towards younger teachers. Again, here is where the individual state’s teachers unions would come in to help us figure out what type of plan would work for that state. Therein lies the great advantage that the Democratic Party has in being able to solve this problem: we have good relationships with the teachers unions. Therefore, we can negotiate with them in a spirit of mutual interest and produce better results than we would by trying to go around them à la GOP.
While this is a meaty plan and it may not have a lot of specific policy prescriptions due to the patchwork nature of our education system, if we want to start regaining ground in the lower levels of government we need to start somewhere. Education is an issue which is important to everyone and lays the foundation for our country’s future success. I understand that these are only some of the issues our education system faces, and that there are people and policymakers already fighting for these issues. These issues are the ones I think are the most important and simultaneously the easiest to fix. Essentially, they are low-hanging fruit. These are areas in which we can make big impacts and big strides while sacrificing relatively little political capital since most people would agree that the three points I brought up are glaring problems in our education system everywhere.
The bottom line is that we need to do something. We need to be a governing party even if we are the opposition party, we need to stand in contrast to the obstructionism of the Republican Party and their penchant for dismantling popular programs and advocate for the American people’s best interest. We need to rebuild the bridges we have burnt over the years with demographic groups in all 50 states not by paying them lip-service but actually do something that helps them.
We cannot just sit on our hands for the next 4 years telling the American people why what Trump and the Republicans are doing is wrong, that is no better than trying to repeal the Affordable Act 63 times over 6 years and having no plan to replace it. Doing so will not win us any elected seats anywhere at any level. We cannot just play defense for the next 4 years and hope that Trump shoots himself the foot. The best defense is a good offense, and with this plan I think we would be running a play that would be a huge triumph for the American people.
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Penn State College