I received a fundraising solicitation this week from a Democratic U.S. senator who is a leading champion of education reform. In the request he outlined his position on six key issues. Education was not one of them.
Recently, the Democratic candidates for president held their first debate and education never came up, except for a reference to containing college costs, which is really more of an economic issue. Education reform was equally absent in the Republican debates, aside from a few half-hearted swipes at the Common Core learning standards.
Many polls show that education does not rank among the top concerns of voters. There are very few examples of public officials voted in or out of office because of their views or actions affecting public education. States routinely cut funding for schools without any consequences at the polls for legislators or governors.
Voter turnout in local school board elections, often scheduled outside the normal election cycles, is typically in the single digits. Even in contentious, big-city school board elections like the recent one in Los Angeles featuring seven-figure campaign budgets and paid advertisements, turnout was still under 8 percent.
And yet, few issues touch more people more directly than education.
Almost all of us are users or funders of the public school system. Our co-workers, customers, employees and employers are public school graduates.
As homeowners, our property values are directly tied to the quality of education in our local schools. As citizens, we are all equally dependent on the public education system to foster economic mobility and secure our economic future.
Many polls show that people are generally satisfied with the quality of education in their local schools even if they think the system is headed in the wrong direction. In a recent survey of public school parents across the country, Education Post found that 50 percent of parents think that education in this country is on the wrong track compared to 31 percent who think it is on the right track.
However, when asked about the schools in their own community, those numbers are reversed. Forty-seven percent said they are on the right track compared to 34 percent who said they aren’t. And when asked about their own child’s school, 31 percent are “very satisfied” and another 50 percent are “somewhat satisfied.” Only 5 percent are “very dissatisfied.”
Given such high levels of satisfaction among public school parents, what’s the case for change?
Reformers cite low high school graduation and college enrollment and completion rates, low test scores, high rates of remedial education in college, and other indicators showing most high school graduates are simply not ready for college. The response, for the most part, is a collective shrug. Parents only care about their own kids, not all kids.
One especially telling finding is that 96 percent of parents think it’s important for their own child to go to college but only 42 percent think all children should go to college.
An even more astonishing finding in our poll suggests that parents don’t really believe schools or teachers play a very big role in driving educational outcomes. When asked, “Who is most responsible if a student is making progress in school,” 78 percent said “parents” or the “students.” Just 13 percent said “teachers” and 5 percent said the “school.” When asked the other way, “Who is most responsible if a student is not making progress in school,” the results were almost identical.
So if voters don’t consider education a top-tier issue, and if parents are mostly satisfied with their own schools and don’t expect very much of them, what does this mean for public education?
Do we ignore the fact that one in five young people never graduates from high school and less than half who do are really ready for college? Do we ignore the fact that U.S. 15-year-olds are behind dozens of other countries in international tests of reading, math and science? Do we ignore the fact that only 10 percent of low-income students earn a four-year college degree compared to 50 percent of high-income students?
Voters may not be sending a message at the voting booth but parents are definitely sending a message through their behavior. For decades, the search for better schools has been driving millions of urban parents to move to suburbs.
The same search has prompted the parents of nearly 10 million children to opt out of the traditional public education system in favor of private schools, public charter schools or home-schooling. These parents have lost confidence in public education and want better options for their children.
Today, America spends approximately $600 billion dollars annually educating our public school students. Add in private schools, preschool and higher education and the total cost to society for education is well over a trillion dollars each year. It’s anyone’s guess what our educational shortcomings generate in social costs.
Given this extraordinary investment, it would be nice if the men and women running for public office were asked about education. It would be even better if voters held them accountable for their actions.