Though President Obama’s resounding victory rightly dominated national attention on Tuesday, education reform movement won as well: referenda expanding the use of charter schools in both Washington and Georgia gained key victories. The bill in Washington is particularly significant: three previous initiatives had been rejected, leaving the state as one of only 10 in the nation with no charters. These victories, while minor at first glance, could be a boon for education reform in general. They are a signal of an impending national recognition of the need to expand school options, particularly in our cities.
For most voters, education is (understandably) a local issue. When discussion turns to schools, people inevitably think about schools in their communities, where their children go. And if those schools are satisfactory, statewide education reforms–including school choice–seems unnecessary. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that most states have huge disparities in educational quality: having great school districts in a state doesn’t preclude the presence of bad ones. For advocates of statewide reform, the trick becomes communicating the necessity of reform to voters in good school districts that wouldn’t reap its benefits. Not an easy task.
That’s why the results in Washington and Georgia are so encouraging. It appears that the general public is starting to understand what so many people in struggling school districts already do: creating more high-quality school options is key to improving outcomes for the thousands of kids who aren’t receiving a quality education. Voters are developing a powerful collective mindset that our goal should be to ensure that all kids–not just our own–are attending great schools. If more people follow the lead of citizens in Washington and Georgia and turn their thoughts towards schools outside of their communities, we will make significant progress towards the goals to which we aspire. Education reformers should be emboldened by these results and push harder than ever.
Today President Obama unveiled a proposal to create a national corps of elite teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math. The fifty top teachers in each of those subjects would receive a $20,000 stipend on top of their salaries in exchange for a multiyear commitment to the corps. Over the next four years the program would expand to 10,000 teachers, with the goal that they would share resources and best practices to teachers across the country.
I’m glad to see this, and hope that this model is spread to other content areas. The structure of teacher compensation in this country is based on the assumption that teachers are equal, interchangeable widgets; seniority, not effectiveness, determines salary. Yet all parents, teachers, and students know that some teachers are better than others. Instead of lying to ourselves at the behest of regimented union contracts, we should acknowledge these differences by highlighting and rewarding our best teachers. Besides incentivizing great teaching with higher salaries, this would encourage the countless great teachers in this country to share resources and best practices. Increasing the influence of outstanding teachers can only help our nation’s students.
I understand why Obama chose to start with STEM teachers for this program–improving our performance in those subjects is perhaps more urgent in the fast-moving global economy. But the principle and simple logic of the program applies to all subjects in all grades. In a time of limited resources, it is especially important to best utilize the resources we have. This proposal takes a big step in that direction.
Since the eruption of news about same-sex marriage in the past week, I have seen an increasing use of national polling data as evidence that the practice should be legalized. And on its face, it makes sense: there has been a precipitous rise in support for same-sex marriage in the last several years, and recent polls show more support than opposition. If it’s what the American people want, shouldn’t it be put in place?
Despite its elegance, that reasoning is the direct opposite of how our government was intended to function. In The Federalist #10—one of the most important theoretical foundations of American democracy, and a personal dorky obsession—James Madison warns against the dangers of “faction” in democratic society. In his words, a faction is a group of people “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion”; in modern terms, this could be anything from a political party or major interest group to a handful of people interested in protecting a forest. Madison isn’t terribly concerned about factions that are in the minority, simply because a vote should stop their views from becoming law if they are abhorrent. But a faction in the majority is a completely different issue:
When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
If a faction is in the majority, it can potentially dominate the minority and work against the public good. “The great object”—in other words, the plan for government, which we now call the U.S. Constitution—of the Founders was to stop that from happening. Our government was designed for the purpose of preventing majorities in support of single issues from imposing its will over the public. Slight national support for same-sex marriage is a perfect example of this.
Now, before you tear me apart, I want to note that I am pleased to see support for same-sex marriage gaining traction. But before we start screaming about injustice and how the country is “calling” for same-sex marriage, let’s remember that our government is supposed to be slow and deliberate in order to prevent the periodic roiling passions of the majority to change our laws. Nobody said it was supposed to be convenient.
It may be the cynic in me, but I’ve been rolling my eyes at the outpouring of adoration of Obama after today’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. To put it bluntly, it’s about time. A couple of points:
1) I can’t ignore the political calculus here. Obama’s statement was timed two days after Biden endorsed it, and one day after the passage of the amendment in NC. Progressives in the country, particularly young voters, were encouraged and then outraged by the country’s social progress. And then who appears to brighten sorrow faces? Our President, who desperately needs to mobilize that group of people so he can win the election in 6 months.
I don’t deny the fact that politicians can legitimately be convinced to change their opinions on key issues. But I think Obama has felt this way for some time; it just hasn’t been politically convenient until now. Why else would he wait until three and a half years in the White House and close to eight as a national figure? A coincidence of that magnitude is not a change I can believe in. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
2) His statement is weak, and will not result in a change in policy. He maintains that it should still be a state issue, which gives implicit support to the result in NC. This keeps same-sex marriage on the same level as abortion and slavery once were: not a right one way or the other, but controlled at the whim of the people.
I agree that this is a significant development. A sitting U.S. President who is seeking reelection has just endorsed same-sex marriage. . . and he may still win the election! But that is a result of a change in the views of the electorate, which is far more significant than that of one man, President or not. So let’s give a cheer to the progress of the American people, not to a well-orchestrated political maneuver. May the tide continue to turn.