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Kerry: Light-Years Ahead on Education

June 26th, 2004

A lot of people are talking about Bush now and virtually ignoring Kerry, and I must say to my regret that I have been one of them. Kerry himself has not been rushing into the limelight, perhaps because Bush is doing such a great job of making himself appear to be the hopeless idiot he is. But Kerry needs to do more, and so do we. So here is the first of a series that will specifically focus on what Kerry plans to do as president, with Bush’s ineptitude serving only as background dressing. First up: Education—I am an educator myself, after all.

Kerry’s education plans are light-years ahead of Bush’s, more so because Bush doesn’t even follow up on his plans, leaving them unfunded and rife with corruption. Kerry understands the realities of education far better, and it shows.

Kerry has all the right priorities for education. First, he is serious about funding it. Second, he knows something Bush doesn’t: that standardized tests are far from a magic wand, they are a disaster, and pledges focus on standards, not mere testing. And third, he wants to pay teachers what they’re worth, part of the worth of his higher standards idea.

The GOP has always whined that “you can’t fix education by throwing money at it,” though they apparently believe that you can “fix” the economy by throwing billions at the super-wealthy, and throw money at corporations, military contractors and inane social engineering like $1.5 billion for encouraging marriage. But education, no, we shouldn’t throw money at that. And God forbid The GOP get anywhere close to a national voucher program—it would absolutely destroy education in this country were it widely applied—but I could go on for pages about that, so let’s return to our subject.

Kerry understands that you get what you pay for, and by just spending a small amount of the money given to the richest 1% in tax cuts, we could bring true improvement to the school system.

Kerry’s idea to fund schools is via a mandatory “National Education Trust Fund” which would make it illegal for the federal government to underfund educational mandates. He would also make sure that the “No Child Left Behind” program, which like Bush’s AIDS assistance program in Africa has not seen the money it was promised, will get its full funding, $11.2 billion more than today, and fully fund special education as well.

Another legacy of Bush is that, like in the 80’s, attempts to cut federal spending starts by cutting support to the states. Kerry would spend $25 billion for state education aid to help keep them from gutting public education due to Bush’s shortchanging.

I can personally attest to the danger of overdependence on test scores. Here in Japan, test scores have traditionally been held as the way to gauge success. And so this is a nation full of people who received at least six years—often much more—of English language studies, but still cannot speak very well at all. Even where the education specializes—in grammar—performance is still very weak on average. But they’re great at passing tests given at their schools. That’s what they’ve learned—how to take tests. Not how to speak, comprehend, read or write.

Bush believes in tests scores. He pushed them in Texas, and when high scores were reported (jumping from 58% to 80%), he gloated before the nation in the 2000 election as to how great a job he did by making testing the new educational deity, calling himself the “Education President.” Of course, we all now know what a fraud that was. Special education test scores were exempted, artificially boosting score averages. More children with low scores were then shoved into this category so as to further inflate the grades, and then even more kids were held back a grade so that they didn’t take the test at all. In addition, teachers would drill incessantly on the tests to the detriment of process and skills, and on test days, students expected to not score well would be encouraged to stay home. As a result, the fraudulent schools got the better funding, while competent, dedicated and honest school administrators and teachers got short-changed.

Kerry, on the other hand, understands the danger of such half-baked feel-good schemes, especially those that directly tie funding to test scores. He will institute a more holistic measurement process to assess real progress and ensure that good teaching is rewarded, not numbers games or “teaching to the test.”

He also wants to make teachers the well-paid, professional educators they should be. As Bill Maher sloganed, “we call them heroes, but we pay them like chumps.” Kerry’s plan “will provide higher pay for teachers in exchange for implementing higher standards. In order to qualify for funding, school districts will have to submit a plan that includes strong professional development plan for the district’s teachers; an aggressive plan to ensure that every teacher is qualified in his/her subject area; and a plan for increasing the number of master teachers and teacher mentors in schools.” Kerry also plans to recruit competent school leaders to match better faculties.

Finally, Kerry wants to spend real money where it counts: making sure that kids are not being taught in virtual cesspools. He wants to spend $24.8 billion on school modernization and repair, fixing polluted drinking water and bad ventilation, renovating decrepit buildings, and providing badly needed new facilities for a growing educational population.

In short, Kerry wants to spend money badly needed to give our kids a chance, not just mouth platitudes and then be a deadbeat president when it comes to funding. And money should be spent, even more than Kerry is suggesting; education is perhaps the greatest investment we can make—but because no big corporations get handouts and the payoff doesn’t come for 16 years or so, the GOP blind to its benefits. Kerry is not.

And I haven’t even started on his plans for improving colleges…

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