Education Politics

Important Wash Post story on the politics of education in Florida this election year. It notes the collision between Florida’s previous accountability plan, which focused only on overall scores, and No Child Left Behind’s requirements that states use disaggregated scores to measure progress for student subgroups, including minorities and special needs students.

Although the Bush on Bush accountability smackdown is too good a storyline to lay off, a few facts are worth mentioning. First, as this Herald Tribune article notes, to make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind this year, schools in Florida need only have about one-third of students proficient in reading and math (as well as writing, which Florida chose to incorporate into the accountability system). That’s worth remembering when schools that were highly rated under Florida’s accountability system get labeled as needing improvement under NCLB. In this case the problem is not NCLB but Florida’s system, which ignored achievement gaps. Perhaps one-third students proficient is just too rigorous a goal. But for Eduwonk’s money, if you were shipwrecked on a desert island where your life depended on solving an education problem you’d want George not Jeb to wash up with you (though you’d of course rather a whole slew of others washed up first…).

The Post article has some of the usual silliness about NCLB as a stalking horse for vouchers, but it also offers this gem of subtext about the through the looking glass politics surrounding this issue. The authors, Terry Neal and John Poole, write that the organized opposition, “consists mostly of educated, affluent whites who are alarmed at what they see as the undermining of a well-rounded education.” Umm…although Florida’s schools could certainly be better overall, it’s generally not white students who are most seriously shortchanged by the system right now.

All this aside, as the article notes, Jeb Bush was reelected despite a campaign against him that focused overwhelmingly on education. The lessons are pretty clear and very worth heeding this year: a.) Don’t mistake interest group discontentment for broad-based discontentment, and b.) Just because voters say they care a lot about education doesn’t mean they vote the issue. Florida’s state system has real problems, but if even those issues couldn’t turn voters out against the incumbent it seems unlikely that the less discernable NCLB standards will. Besides, if education issues offer the best grounds for criticism of George or Jeb Bush that any campaign can find they’re not looking very hard…

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