EDUCATION POLICY: Equality, Knowledge, and Federalism
“Education is the future,” says CA State Senator Jack Scott, who chairs the State's Senate Committee on Education. Everyone agrees “that all Americans deserve a quality education,” but most political leaders launch into the ‘how?’ before answering the ‘what?’ in defining education policy. The 2008 Presidential candidates' position statements, for example, have focused on who sets educational goals and standards: parents or government? (Teachers, students anyone?) Who pays? And, for what? And, where do the federal, state and local governments fit into the equation?
But their proposals beg the question of core principles – ultimate objectives – of what the country’s education policy is seeking to achieve. To gain some perspective, PT spoke with Senator Scott, who brings 16 years as a teacher and 18 years as a College president to the legislature. He was elected to the CA State Assembly in 1996 and the CA Senate in 2000.
PT: What should be the basic goal of our education policy?
Senator Scott: I go back to our founding principles, that “all men are created equal.” Students come to school with inequalities, so what we really mean by that is “all people are entitled to equal opportunity.” One of the most effective ways to reach that goal is through education.
PT: How does this translate into specific programs?
Senator Scott: What this means are financial aid programs, compensatory programs including special education for students who have learning disabilities and school lunches. We’ve also learned that it’s more difficult to teach students who don’t speak English as a native language.
PT: Is there a key to getting this done?
Senator Scott: All of this requires good teachers and good facilities. We can’t control socioeconomic factors, but we can look to equality of teaching. Any steps towards good pay, good working conditions, and elevating the status of teaching profession are in the right direction. I also believe there should be differential pay for teachers.
PT: Let’s talk about test scores vs. creative thinking. NCLB, the College Boards, and school curriculums are all oriented towards test taking. In a previous article, a number of educators told PT that, “creative thinking” had suffered in the process.
Senator Scott: There has to be a balance. No test is perfect, but there is a value in testing. But, we have to be careful that in our headlong rush to more testing, real learning doesn’t suffer. We’ve gone a little too test happy and have taken away instruction time. What students should gain is the means by which to gain more knowledge.
PT: In a recently published book, author Susan Jacoby talks about the long history of “hostility to knowledge” in American culture. But, she says there’s now been a new development: “not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, but they also don’t think it matters.” In part, she lays the blame on a failing educational system. “Although people are going to school more and more years, there’s no evidence that they know more,” she said. Senator Scott: There is a need to create a national culture that says you should get as much education as possible. Education is the future. Our greatest resource is our human resources—the intellectual capital. I’ve been very impressed by Asian cultures. There’s an emphasis on learning, a culture that prizes education.
PT: That brings up the subject of NCLB (“No Child Left Behind”).
Senator Scott: I haven’t faulted NCLB on the basis of testing, but on an unrealistic goal that “all kids will be proficient.” There’s no way that a school in an inner city can match the test results of an affluent suburb. A state with a homogenous population will have an easier time meeting certain standards than one with a very heterogeneous population.
There are so many variables that impact education. Testing students for proficiency may not provide all the right answers, but there are ways to measure whether students are making an improvement.
I have also criticized NCLB because it was insufficiently funded. Obviously, we have not emphasized education as much as we should. Improving the quality of teachers and insuring that classes are well equipped with the latest technology are crucial to improving standards, but NCLB never took those costs into account.
PT: So, what are the respective roles of Washington and the state governments?
Senator Scott: I became involved in education in the 1950s—when we decided that separate is not equal. The Federal government could well serve a purpose by rearranging its priorities, providing some broad guidelines, and better funding certain programs, e.g., special education.
If you talk to people, they’re not anti-education. They are looking for guidelines, special funding that would empower them to improve our educational system.
PT: What about the states, California in particular?
Senator Scott: The state has primary responsibility for education, for providing quality K-12 and higher education. Money isn’t the only thing, but CA ought to be spending more money. Education is the No. 1 responsibility for the state. It’s the largest item in the state budget.
As a state we have to say this is high priority. It has to do with the success of our state. In CA, there’s a study that says by 2020, we will need 40% of our population with a college degree. But projections say only 33% of the population will have a Bachelor's Degree.
We ought to be willing to raise taxes to pay for education. Otherwise, we will pay in other ways—more prisons, higher unemployment. We have a choice of being a high tax, high service state. Or low tax, low service state. We can’t have it both ways. To raise taxes, we have to get a 2/3 vote of the Legislature. We could reform our property tax, as long as it made sense.
PT: Thank you for your time Senator.