When I heard that for the second presidential debate (2016), the Open Debate Coalition sponsoring the event was making it possible for citizens to submit questions for the candidates online, I rejoiced.
Finally, I thought, we might hear the candidates quizzed on topics that hadn’t already been talked to death in the media. Maybe, I hoped, maybe they might be asked to address the failure of schools to teach children to read and write by the end of third grade.
More than three million people responded to the debate website, voting on 15,000+ questions. One question received 75,617 votes. One of the questions on education received about 30,000 votes.
In theory, asking for public input in this way was an excellent idea. In practice, the CNN and ABC monitors chose to ask just one of the questions from the site—a question that only thirteen of the three million participants had bothered to vote for.
Here are the education-related questions from the list that interest me. The numbers in parentheses are the number of votes they received.
- Do you support returning control of our schools to parents and local communities? (6,564)
- What will you do as president to fend off the privatization of public education? (5,525)
- How do you plan to deal with college tuition? (5,267)
- How will you expand and enhance career and technical education programs? (5,208)
- What is your plan to improve early-childhood education in this country? (3,885)
- Will you work to get corporations out of public education? (2,838)
- Do you believe that the cost of higher education is out of control? (2,053)
- What are your thoughts on the Common Core State Standards? (1,965)
- How does state-testing through ESSA help or harm students and schools? (1,914)
NOTE: ESSA is the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. In its last incarnation it was called “No Child Left Behind.” Now it is called “Every Student Succeeds Act.” Like NCLB, ESSA puts more emphasis on testing than on teaching.
The good news is that it doesn’t much matter that questions about education were not put to the presidential candidates.
Presidents don’t determine the course of public education. They send their own children to private schools and follow the recommendations of advisors drawn chiefly from the ranks of educational theorists, commercial testing companies, entrepreneurs, and corporate CEOs.
The place to ask questions about education and demand answers is at the local and state levels. Bad decisions about educational policy are made by state senators and representatives whose fuzzy vision of public education is rooted in nostalgic memories of their own schooldays and their acquaintance with economically advantaged children in their own family circles.
School board members often serve as nothing more than yes-men for the local school superintendent, effectively leaving decisions that affect the community in the hands of one person who may be motivated by considerations other than education.
Voters who want solutions on a federal level need to elect representatives and senators who care as much about effective public schools as they do about bringing jobs and roads to their states.
The best way to ensure effective schools in a community is for the people in that community to educate themselves about such things as early childhood education, beginning reading instruction, charter schools, curriculum, and standardized testing.
They need to elect school board members who are themselves educated and care at least as much about effective writing and reading instruction K-3 as they do about effective football coaches 9-12.
They need to demand evidence that local school policies and curriculum benefit the majority of students who attend the local schools.
They need to stop expecting the federal government to solve problems that can be dealt with at the local level.
Finally, voters need to stop thinking of the local public school as a kind of Emerald City where broken children are made whole and the federal government as an all-powerful wizard who can solve all their problems. Effective education and childcare begin at home. So do effective public education policies.