Democrats’ education platform is superior

With so many political advertisements snatching at each spare bit of attention we have, many smaller, but still important topics, can be lost in the fray. So this week, I sat down to read the party platforms of the Republicans and the Democrats to see how both talk about one topic close to our own lives: education.

First impressions were not good. Party platforms are fluff pieces, little more than exercises in rhetoric, so I found, to no surprise, the “Democrats defending”:http://assets.dstatic.org/dnc-platform/2012-National-Platform.pdf Mr. Obama’s record at every — and I do mean every — turn and the “Republicans mentioning”:http://www.gop.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/2012GOPPlatform.pdf consumer rights and school choice with the fervency of a free-market spiritualist. Once past the partisan red meat, both platforms contained many of the same ideas, although neither party is likely to admit that.

Both parties, for instance, voiced support for community colleges. That earned a little cheer from me, actually. Traditional four-year universities will continue to provide the bedrock of higher education, but a variety of options need to exist for a variety of students — especially adults looking for a change in their lives and those without the finances or time to pursue a standard four-year degree. However, as we have seen with for-profit colleges preying on veterans, maintaining quality in educational options, not just having options, remains one of the biggest problems, and neither platform offered any ideas of how to do that.

This pattern, of voicing support for a general concept without providing any amount of details, occurred again and again. Both platforms gave a parade of educational reform buzzwords, such as “charter schools” or “merit pay,” without providing even the most basic factual support for the concepts.

Take charter schools: they “outperform public schools”:https://www.sree.org/conferences/2012s/program/downloads/abstracts/476_2.pdf in low-income inner city areas but are equal or worse than public schools on average. Or take “merit pay”:http://www.palgrave-journals.com/eej/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/eej201222a.html (“rewarding good teachers” in the Democrats’ parlance): Since paying based on performance is not the model most schools use, there is little data on its effectiveness, and what data there is suggests that it has little to no effect on student performance.

This lack of subtlety gave me the impression that both parties want to show the public that they recognize the problem and that they have some ideas on how to solve it. But since neither platform dealt with the realities of these issues, I came away feeling that neither party would be successful in solving these problems in the short term.

This is not to say that Democrats and Republicans agreed on all things; both devoted time to discussing the problem of student debt, and while both recognized it as an important issue, they were on polar opposites of how to deal with it. Democrats want to “[remove] the banks acting as middlemen,” while Republicans want to get the government out of the loan business altogether and focus on private investment.

This particular difference, however, is superficial. To many students, where their loans come from is not nearly as important as being able to pay back the loans without being crushed under interest rates. (Here, I do have to give some credit to Democrats for discussing efforts to keep interest rates low, which the Republican platform did not.)

Some more curious differences attracted my attention: Democrats frequently discussed teaching itself as a job — “a good middle-class job” — and insulating teachers from layoffs due to the slow economy. Republican discussion on the job of teaching, on the other hand, was restricted to protecting teachers from “frivolous lawsuits” and using merit pay to attract new teachers to the profession. Democrats touted their efforts to support institutions that serve minorities. Republicans, on the other hand, focused more on students who are disabled.

Then there were things that were absent form both platforms: While both focused on the importance of parents in their children’s education — Republicans moreso — neither proposed any ideas for increasing parental involvement or assisting students who lack said involvement. The recent lightning-rod of the teaching of creationism also went missing from both.

The ultimate question, of course, is which platform convinced me as a reader that their party knows best how to deal with education. In platforms high on fluff and unsubstantiated rhetoric, I focused on which party convinced me that they would (eventually) find the right solution.

Democrats said they would “listen to (teachers)” to find solutions. Republicans did not and even came off as vaguely antagonistic to teachers.

Point — one small, but important point — to the Democrats.

Joseph is a graduate student in Mathematics. He can be reached at [email protected]