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Karen Hitchcock : Election 2012 - The Democratic Education Platform and a Comparison to the GOP

In my last commentary I reviewed the major elements of the Republican education platform. Since then, the Democratic Platform has been passed, a platform which addresses a number of policy areas dealing with both K-12 and higher education, and not surprisingly, reflects a number of programs begun during President Obama’s first term in office.   

In terms of K-12 education, the President’s focus on improving the quality of our nation’s schools continues.  The Democrats, like the Republicans, recognize the need for schools to develop programs which can help to ensure that students graduate from high school, in the words of the Democratic Platform, “…ready for college or career and [able to] succeed in a dynamic global economy.”  However, they differ with the Republicans in terms of the role of the federal government in supporting such initiatives.  The Democrats see the need to incentivize such programs with federal funding, whereas the Republicans would, “…wherever possible, leave resources where they originate: in the homes and neighborhoods of the taxpayers.”

The Democrats also continue their focus on the need to improve our nation’s teacher education programs.  And, while addressing the need  --  and, I  quote  -- for  “…carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process,” the Democratic Platform does not address the nature of such evaluation systems or the role of standardized tests in such a process. The Republican Platform is also largely silent on details of teacher evaluation processes. Further, in order to increase the number of effective teachers, especially in the STEM disciplines, both the Republicans, and many Democrats, favor a broad definition of “highly qualified” teachers that includes those with “alternative certification.”  

In fact, the goals and policy priorities of the Democrats for K-12 education are not, in general, unlike those of the Republicans: greater choice across a spectrum of K-12 educational opportunities, including charter schools, and increasing the quality of the educational experience by identifying effective ways to evaluate student achievement and linking teacher evaluations and raises to performance.  The major differences between the Parties reflect their widely divergent views on the role the federal government should play in the K-12 reform everyone agrees is necessary.

Likewise, in higher education, both Parties recognize the key issues facing the sector:  affordability; sufficient financial aid to allow access without accumulating a prohibitive debt load; and, ensuring that the educational programs offered by our whole range of higher educational institutions are sufficient to meet the needs of our nation, and will lead to excellent job opportunities for their graduates.  The Parties’ approaches to these issues, however, differ in predictable, and major, ways.

In terms of affordability, both Parties have called for more transparency regarding actual costs and justifications for major tuition increases.  As stated in the Democratic Platform, “President Obama has pledged to encourage colleges to keep their costs down by reducing federal aid for those that do not, [and] investing in colleges that keep tuition affordable and provide good value…”  The Republicans,  on the other hand, feel that simply increasing the types of available educational opportunities such as technical schools, on-line institutions, and so forth, which would compete with traditional four-year colleges will help to drive down four-year college costs, even as more lower-cost degree programs are made available, degree programs directly responsive to the needs of our nation’s employers.  In fact, Democrats and Republicans alike stress the need to better align post-secondary programs with job opportunities.  Hence, President Obama has focused his programmatic initiatives around community colleges, stressing their special ability to be responsive to the changing needs of the workforce, a sector addressed as well by the Republicans.  Both Parties are committed to developing new approaches to address this critical national workforce issue.

Probably the most striking difference between the two Parties is the approach each takes to financial aid.  President Obama is committed to ending the federal, bank-based student loan program, while Republicans feel that all student loans should originate from the private sector.  If the major savings projected by the Obama administration from such a change are applied, as they recommend, to enhancing the Pell Grant Program, affordable access for low-income students could be greatly improved.   Clearly, this is an area of public policy of great importance to our nation’s future.   Indeed, if the Democrats are to meet their goal of having the world’s highest population of college graduates by 2020, the issue of affordable access will have to be addressed, even as we wrestle with the issue of how to fund the expansion of higher education capacity which would be required to meet such a goal.

As an educator, I am heartened by the fact that both Parties clearly recognize the need for quality and access across all levels of our nation’s educational system.  However, I fear the gridlock that may occur, given the stark differences in approach being advocated.  All of us should call on our representatives and government officials to reject partisanship and move, together, to address in innovative ways the educational needs confronting our nation.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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