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Home » News & Analysis » Commentary » FROM THE DESK OF… Jeanne Allen, Senior Fellow: Recommendations on the GOP Presidential Debate

FROM THE DESK OF… Jeanne Allen, Senior Fellow: Recommendations on the GOP Presidential Debate

In the hands of some very seasoned campaign advisors, most presidential candidates take a safe approach to debates. With a relatively short time to get your talking points out, numerous issues to cover and lots of competitors working hard to hog the stage, they are advised to stay focused. But the measure of a candidate is what they do – and say – when programming is impossible. Who these people are and how they’d do as our president is best measured by dealing with issues that every one of us can relate to, the most communal of issues. That’s why I’m hoping that the candidates find opportunities across every issue to demonstrate their understanding that education is the great equalizer, and its connection to the economy and our international competitiveness, our peace, our safety at home and abroad is all connected to how well we educate our youth and our adults. Education is a big field, of course, so I’ll be looking for the guy or gal who is able to talk about education in the context of the most important current events we face today in improving and revolutionizing our schools. In my book, the candidate who touches well on the following three most important themes will win my vote.

Number One: Celebrate charter schools

Charter schools provide choice and diversity to parents and teachers, and challenge the status quo to do better. They are held accountable by performance contracts and in states where charters are largely independent from state and local bureaucracies they thrive. Charter schools are the reason we talk about standards today, have performance pay and teacher quality on the table and have closed some achievement gaps. Charters have helped breathe new life into cities like Washington, D.C. and New Orleans (just two out of dozens), and brought people back to supporting public education, something that had been in serious decline when they launched in the 90s. Charters are bi-partisan, but they are often underfunded and they threaten the status quo.

PLEASE avoid the trite (and misguided) comment we hear from so many advocates and politicians today that “I support good charter schools and believe in closing bad ones.” It actually means nothing. We don’t have any existing research using randomized controls (the gold standard of research). What we do have is data carefully collected by charter authorizers and by local and regional researchers that reveal major gains over time by charter students in every area where laws are permissive, flexible and parents have multiple options. So please, don’t use data someone on your campaign handed you unless you read it yourself. Instead, talk about what you’ve seen and reflect on the landscape of education reform that has changed the trajectory of education for the better since they began. Two and a half million families and 1.5 million adults involved in charter schooling must know something.

Number Two: Embrace vouchers

Being for school choice is great, because it works. It gives parents the right to have a say in how to educate their own kids, and it’s an important lever for change in the entirety of public education. While you can and should applaud and support the diversity of choice programs that are in place nationwide, it’s also important to use your public position to advocate for expanding the most impactful school choice programs. Today some 14 different school choice programs provide numerous options among private schools to parents who are poor, parents who have children with special needs, parents who live in certain cities, and now, thanks to Nevada, any parent anywhere in that state. Many of these impressive programs provide tax credits and third-party scholarships to families making choices difficult to navigate and often difficult to afford. They are great programs, all of them, and provide parents with some to lots of power. However real power for parents comes from having direct purchasing power in the form of vouchers. Money moves with the parent, putting the school they left in a defensive (and often more competitive posture) and enabling other schools to vie for the privilege of educating their child.

Many legislators, opponents and even advocates point to legal and constitutional barriers as a reason not to push vouchers in a majority of states. We should, however, be willing to challenge the wrongheaded constitutional bans based on religious discrimination, and so my presidential candidate will demand that states not only consider full-scale voucher programs that help the poorest among us, but will challenge any state ban that is rooted in discrimination of any sort to change or be challenged. Let’s get the issue more forcefully on the national table and reengage all in a critical aspect of social justice for all.

Number Three: High standards come in all shapes and sizes

The third principle that my candidate would stand for is a willingness to endorse and support the highest of educational standards, and appreciate that whether or not it sounds chaotic, state and local communities do indeed have every right to determine what they believe are the best standards for their kids. Yes, there is no doubt that uniform expectations for math and reading should be applied to all students, however, when it comes to matters of science, history and literature, expectations for students are wide and varied. Rarely do we hear a presidential candidate demand that we teach our students every bit of foundational content critical for them to be productive actors in our rich American tapestry.

There has yet to be any national effort that fosters among our students a deep understanding of the principles of our nation, important battles fought throughout our nation’s history, aspects of international relations to demonstrate America’s clear exceptionality and the kind of literature rooted in the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. Most common curriculum and standards today are politically correct and emphasize only what is contemporary.

At the national level, when this discussion ensues it normally descends into a battle of what history is most relevant. Most states and local communities understand that’s not acceptable so let’s allow states and communities to battle over standards, which is their constitutional right. Then a president can provide leadership at the national level that simply reinforces and addresses the importance of educational excellence and incentivizes that at the local level.

There are many other things my presidential candidate would do, from ensuring flexibility and freedom for higher-education institutions, to treating all educational organizations regardless of their tax status equally based on results, to reducing bureaucracy that directs states, districts and schools how to spend money they get and at the same time, to being willing to penalize states and communities who treat students and children badly. For now, though, I’ll take the top three.



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