Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander will likely become chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Though he has yet to be elected by his Republican peers, he has given several interviews that indicate how he would change the way educational services are delivered in our country. For all his bluster, though, his approach is essentially to privatize and push states rights.
For example, while President Obama has proposed spending $75 billion for universal and mandated preschool education, Senator Alexander would take the $22 billion of federal funds for preschool education and send it back to the states. While the president’s proposal would include guidelines on teacher qualification, class size, and other matters, Alexander would have the states make those decisions. Alexander suggests that his approach is “innovative,” but this is more of the same old stuff.
There has been some controversy about “Common Core” requirements that would somewhat standardized high school education, indicating what students should know when they graduate from high school. Alexander says the states, not the federal government, should make these decisions, but the unwillingness to look at national educational standards is a step backward, not a step forward.
In the several interviews Alexander has given since the Republicans won the Senate in the midterm elections, he has not mentioned the term “achievement gap,” though African Americans and Latinos trail Whites in both mathematics and English proficiency. While Alexander’s silence on this issue is disturbing, equally disturbing is the fact that Democrats have not put enough effort in addressing the achievement gap. Thus, while President Obama says he wants the United States to lead the world in college graduation rates, little has been done to make sure this can happen, especially for African Americans and Latinos.
There seems to be a collective decision to ignore the achievement gap, and a lack of passion about closing it. To be sure, many African American educational leaders have focused on the achievement gap, especially among Black boys (Black girls need attention, too). But their work usually does not result in headlines.
While neither Democrats nor Republicans are blameless in this matter, it is Republicans who continually talk about reaching out to the African American community. Senator Lamar Alexander could have made some progress with African Americans, especially educators, if he had spent jut a few seconds of his media rounds talking about race and the achievement gap.
Education ought to be one of our nation’s highest priorities. It ought to have been so for the past several decades. President Obama came into office saying that education is a high priority, but the economy and international issues have moved education issues from a high priority to an afterthought.
What does it take to make education a higher priority? What does it take to close the race gap in achievement? Given our nation’s shifting demographics, there should be some passion about reforming our education system so that more young people (and those not so young) are able to achieve their highest and best aspirations.The best-educated workforce is the more productive, so failing to focus on education means failing to focus on the future of our nation’s economy.
We ignore these education challenges at our own peril. Senator Lamar Alexander can make a difference if he gets off his privatization, state’s rights hobbyhorse and talk about embracing ways our entire nation can improve educational attainment. The states rights’ approach leads to a real unevenness in educational quality – some states will choose to prioritize education and others will not. Yet, our entire nation will shoulder the impact of uneven education, and our entire nation will pay.
The only saving grace in the fact that Senator Alexander will chair the Senate Education Committee is that he may have only have two years to wreak havoc. If Democrats are astute and provide more focus on education, then perhaps Republican dominance will fade. Still, this is not about Democrats or Republicans; it is about the future of our nation.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, D.C..