Education at forefront in 2012 presidential election

Posted on September 17, 2012 in Perspectives
By Spencer McBreairty

When J.F. Kennedy made his historic “Ask not” speech, he made no mention of education. During President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, he made it a cornerstone of his platform. Change we can believe in, he said. Since education is clearly an issue that affects us all, it would only make sense to focus on that topic.

So what exactly is at stake in this presidential election? In order to address that question, one must turn to both candidates and their websites. For someone wanting to get a clear view of each party’s respective stance, it seems like a good source of information. What can be found? Pretty much what is expected.

Let’s start with the challenger. Governor Mitt Romney states that “testing our kids, excellent curriculum, superb teachers, and school choice” are the answers to saving American schools. I look at that, and a few questions come to mind. Mitt, if you’re all about saving our schools, why are you promoting school choice or “voucher” systems? This always gets testy: if a parent wants to send his or her child to a private, religious school, should the taxpayers really foot the bill for that? The GOP has talked a lot about such a system, and it raises some concerns.

Charter schools is one topic that the GOP and I almost see eye-to-eye on. I went to a public school. Granted, my public school was the only one serving 9 different towns, so it was made to be fairly adequate. It offered several advanced placement courses, classes at the local university and plenty of honors choices. But it is not difficult to find others who had it much less fortunate.

Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to work with a girl originally from the Los Angeles area. Now studying abroad in Botswana and attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, she talked about her unhappy high school experience. Growing up where she did, abject poverty and crime were a constant variable. In Aroostook County, I was shaded from that life. So for me, the idea of public tax dollars paying for me to go to another school seemed exciting but, relatively, unnecessary. When I look at cases like my friend’s, I think that, perhaps, it would not be the worst idea.

In cities like Washington, DC, the public school systems are in shambles. One prominent example in the news this week is the teacher strike in Chicago. With over half a million students out of the classroom while their teachers strike, the issue of public education is thrown into the spotlight once more. So what’s the real issue?

To paraphrase a quote from Martin Sheen’s presidential character on the television show The West Wing, our public schools should be palaces and our teachers should make six-figure salaries. But as Sheen points out in the same line of dialogue, public education is a work in progress. I’m not sure what the magical answer is in all reality, there might not be one. But I think it’s time we stop looking for a “quick fix” in the form of charter schools or vouchers. While there are benefits to alternative forms of education, they shouldn’t be the catch-all. Schools like the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, consistently ranked one of the best in the entire country, should exist.

Let’s focus some energy on schools for science and math. Let’s focus some energy on schools for politics and government. Let’s even focus some energy on schools for art and music, subjects that often play second fiddle in school curriculum. But we cannot expect that magically, one day, these schools will “fix” the American educational system.

Briefly, I also want to touch upon Mitt’s mention of “testing” our kids. Under the Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) penalized schools for low test scores. When I was 11 years old and this bill became reality, I remember thinking one simple thing: wouldn’t it make more sense to give poorly-performing schools the money necessary to hire better teachers, expand their curriculum, and raise their own test scores? Of course, the 11 year old me probably said it in fewer words. But still, the theme remains the same.

Under Obama, NCLB was reformed. Now states have the flexibility to act locally and decide more adequately what works for their districts. This provided relief to several districts, including my own which had several elementary schools with low scores. So let’s allow administrators in K-12 districts to focus on educating and not on how to raise their scores the fastest. The president has rewarded schools for doing better with his Race to the Top program, but has not necessarily sought to consequence those who do not.

There are other questions more relevant to us that are just as important. Of those reading this, who attended a community college at some point? Who has ever benefited from a Pell Grant? Who relies heavily on loans to help afford college?
If you’re like me, you answered “Yes, me!” to at least one or two of these. I’m always fine saying “Uncle Obama pays for my college education” because I know that education is an investment. If Mitt Romney felt the same way Obama does, I’d say the same thing. Education should not be a partisan issue, but it has become one. Under Obama’s watch, a new bill was signed into law which ensures no more than ten percent of your income can be collected for loan payment. And if, after twenty years, your debt is not paid back, it is forgiven. Teachers, nurses, and members of the armed forces, for example, get their debts forgiven in ten years.

While that law currently affects only new borrowers from 2014 onward, an attempt is being made so that you and I can receive the same benefits. I hope to pay my loans off in the next 240 months, but if for some reason I cannot, the potential help is greatly appreciated.

In this election, the choice of candidates could not be more different. Obama believes in working to fix our system and help students afford college. Romney believes in finding the next best thing and hoping you can write a check for college. The dark reality is that with college costs on the rise, and the GOP attempting to raise our loan rates and decrease loan forgiveness opportunities, things could get much more difficult for college students.

This issue directly affects nearly everyone reading this paper. If you get passionate about nothing else this November, get passionate about your education. Stand up for what is relevant in your life right now. Over five years at USM, I’m going to end up being close to $60k in debt. Hopefully you’re better off, but many are worse off than me. I’m not intentionally trying to sway anyone’s vote, but if you care about education, I feel like the choice is clear.