The other night I was on the sofa juggling the remote control in one hand, a custom built ham sandwich with the works in the other, and a plate of Cheetos and a cold beer on my lap. I was one false move from a big mess when I froze on the spot as a guy on TV in a suit at some government committee table said it.
“When adults fight, children lose.”
What a simple, brilliant assessment of what’s happening with education politics in our state and nation.
The man was Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, and he was testifying before the US House Education and Workforce Committee on the Obama Administration’s education budget and, at the same time, trying to undermine the alternative Republican education budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan.
As I managed to stabilize my ham sandwich and beer and keep all the Cheetos on the plate and off the floor, I sat and watched the Committee hearing as it unfolded for the better part of an hour. Yes, I know, you may think I’m some sort of sick policy wonk or C-Span junkie that doesn’t have a real life so I watch this sort of thing. Maybe, but I really am interested in education in our country and especially in South Carolina.
Though we do have some good schools – even a few great schools in our state – the reality is that for too many of our children, our schools are failing. And if we in South Carolina don’t fix education, and do it soon, nothing else really matters. Much of our state will be destined for the stagnant economic backwaters of the globally competitive economy of the 21st Century.
So, what did I see on C-Span? In a phrase, I saw adults fighting and children suffering.
The way the hearing was set up, all the Democrats sat on one side of the room and all the Republicans sat on the other. (Needless to say, such artificial partisan divides are a big part of the problem.) The committee members went back and forth, rotating between R’s and D’s and each getting about ten minutes to ask their questions of Secretary Duncan.
Most all the questions fell into one of three groups. First, Republicans made little ideological speeches to Duncan about how “your education policy is bad because Obama proposed it and we don’t like Obama.” The Democrats responded with their little speeches of “Paul Ryan and the Republicans are cruel and heartless people because they want to cut whatever is the favorite education program of folks back in my district.”
The third, and by far the smallest group, were a very few Republicans and Democrats who asked substantive policy questions about how a particular program worked or how to make it better. There weren’t many of these but you could see the whole tone and demeanor of both the congress people and Secretary Duncan change when serious people asked serious questions about serious issues.
After a half hour or so, as the hearing continued in this same pattern, I began to think how this was just like politics in South Carolina. We have a bunch of politicians on both sides more interested in making ideological points and spouting cute sound bites than in trying to drill down and deal with the real issues of education, or most any other important issue facing our state.
Unfortunately, this same partisan pattern holds for our current state Superintendent of Education campaign. It’s a veritable zoo of candidates. At last count there were ten Republicans and four Democrats, most all trying to be more shrill or more partisan than the others and thus get on TV with a snappy sound bite. I’m sure that they are all well-meaning people who care about our kids, but you would never really know it from listening to their politics-as-usual speeches or from reading their pretty but empty websites.
Now, full disclosure: I like one of the candidates, Montrio Belton, and have supported and contributed to him ever since he came to see me and laid out a serious, non-political vision for fixing education in the state.
But the point remains: there are some good folks in both parties that are serious about education but unfortunately the whole political dialogue in Washington and in South Carolina is focused on the wrong thing – adults fighting each other while the children suffer.
Fixing politics in our state is vital and unless we do, we can’t fix education in this state.
That’s important, and that’s no ham sandwich.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform to our state. firstname.lastname@example.org www.SCNewDemocrats.org