Thomas Jefferson may have been wrong- very wrong -about slavery, but he was spot on about many things. For example, in a 1789 letter to Richard Price, he argued that “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”
In other words, an informed electorate is the best guarantee of democracy. In order to help those interested in education issues to sift through the platforms of both the major political parties during this presidential election season, yesterday I explored the main points of the Republican Party Platform with regard to education. Today, I highlight the major positions of the Democratic Party as they appear in the current platform:
- Public schools must be safeguarded and supported: “The Democratic Party understands the importance of turning around struggling public schools. We will continue to strengthen all our schools and work to expand public school options for low-income youth, including magnet schools, charter schools, teacher-led schools, and career academies.” This position is also evident in the party’s position on school vouchers: “Instead of pushing private school vouchers that funnel scarce dollars away from the public schools, we will support public school choice, including charter schools and magnet schools that meet the same high standards as other schools.”
- Teachers must be respected and heard: “Democrats honor our nation’s teachers. If we want high-quality education for all our kids, we must listen to the people who are on the front lines. The President has laid out a plan to prevent more teacher layoffs while attracting and rewarding great teachers. This includes raising standards for the programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers. We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process. “
- Good education requires financial investment: “We Democrats also recognize the economic opportunities created by our nation’s community colleges. That is why the President has invested in community colleges and called for additional partnerships between businesses and community colleges to train two million workers with the skills they need for good jobs waiting to be filled.” In addition, investment involves accountability: “President Obama has pledged to encourage colleges to keep their costs down by reducing federal aid for those that do not, investing in colleges that keep tuition affordable and provide good value, doubling the number of work-study jobs available to students, and continuing to ensure that students have access to federal loans with reasonable interest rates.”
- Inequities in the educational system must end: “We must close the achievement gap in America’s schools and ensure that in every neighborhood in the country, children can benefit from high-quality educational opportunities. This is why we have helped states and territories develop comprehensive plans to raise standards and improve instruction in their early learning programs and invested in expanding and reforming Head Start.” Further, “Too many students, particularly students of color and disadvantaged students, drop out of our schools, and Democrats know we must address the dropout crisis with the urgency it deserves. The Democratic Party understands the importance of turning around struggling public schools. We will continue to strengthen all our schools and work to expand public school options for low-income youth, including magnet schools, charter schools, teacher-led schools, and career academies.”
- Government must help make higher education more affordable: “To help keep college within reach for every student, Democrats took on banks to reform our student loan program, saving more than $60 billion by removing the banks acting as middlemen so we can better and more directly invest in students. To make college affordable for students of all backgrounds and confront the loan burden our students shoulder, we doubled our investment in Pell Grant scholarships and created the American Opportunity Tax Credit worth up to $10,000 over four years of college, and we’re creating avenues for students to manage their federal student loans so that their payments can be only 10 percent of what they make each month. “
- Greater access to education for all can make the nation stronger: “To make this country a destination for global talent and ingenuity, we won’t deport deserving young people who are Americans in every way but on paper, and we will work to make it possible for foreign students earning advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to stay and help create jobs here at home.”
- Community colleges and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education help our economy: “We Democrats also recognize the economic opportunities created by our nation’s community colleges. That is why the President has invested in community colleges and called for additional partnerships between businesses and community colleges to train two million workers with the skills they need for good jobs waiting to be filled, and to support business-labor apprenticeship programs that provide skills and opportunity to thousands of Americans. The President also proposed to double key investments in science to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, encourage private sector innovation, and prepare at least 100,000 math and science teachers over the next decade.”
In many ways, Democratic education policy is far less ideological than the Republican plans. There is only one mention of family and no mention of religion or sex education in the Democratic platform. Instead, it focuses much more on “bread and butter” funding issues, process-oriented questions of accountability and assessment. This platform also emphasizes what the current administration has done in the past few years, which is always characteristic of a party platform when an incumbent is running for re-election.
Concerns about the Democratic Plans for Education
Many analysts are concerned that the Democratic Party does not place enough emphasis on education reform. Seattle Times columnist Lynne K. Varner argues that Democrats could lose a number of voters within their own party because they
“are purposefully ignoring the donkey in the room, which is this: a growing number of Democrats are unhappy with their elected leaders’ refusal to go big on education reforms. Reformers watched in dismay as Democratic leaders blocked key reforms including exchanging an outdated seniority-based layoff policy for one based on performance and overhauling the billion-dollar health-insurance program for school employees.”
There are similar criticisms of the Democrats’ continuing support of educational testing and for No Child Left Behind, a program created by President Obama’s Republican predecessor George W. Bush. Even long-time and very vocal supporter Matt Damon, the Hollywood actor whose mother was a schoolteacher and who had drawn a huge amount of support for President Obama in the past, has been critical of this aspect of the Democratic program and President Obama’s policies:
“I really think he misinterpreted his mandate. A friend of mine said to me the other day, I thought it was a great line, ‘I no longer hope for audacity.’ He’s doubled down on a lot of things, going back to education… the idea that we’re testing kids and we’re tying teachers’ salaries to how kids are performing on tests, that kind of mechanized thinking has nothing to do with higher order. We’re training them, not teaching them.”
In this election, then, members of both parties have concerns about and differences with their own party platforms. This only underscores the tricky nature of political parties and their platforms, in which you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Voters are advised to read the platforms thoroughly and carefully, and vote with the party whose plans and values most closely adhere to what they think would be good for the nation.