Q&A with Professor Mark Stern: Education in the Election

Kerry Houston

Madison County residents voted on Election Day, November 6 in the general election to determine not only the President of the United States, but also on several local races.

Offices on the 2012 ballot were for President and Vice President, United States Senator, Justice of Supreme Court, Representative in Congress, State Senate, Member of Assembly and District Attorney.

The race between Dan Lamb (D) and Richard Hanna (R) for the seat in the House of Repre-sentatives was the most hotly con-tested, according to Chair of the Town of Hamilton Democratic Party Bruce Moseley.

“I think the general feeling is that the one that we can have the most effect upon is the Congressional race,” Moseley said.

Both Bill Magee (D) and Levi Spires (R) ran for the position of As-semblyman for the 121st District. Kristen Gillibrand (D) and Wendy Long (R) both ran to fill one of New York’s seats in the Senate.

Kevin Dowd and David Valesky ran unopposed for Justice of Su-preme Court and the 53rd District State Senate, respectively.

Local positions such as town su-pervisor, town clerk, highway super-intendent and town councilmen are voted upon every two years; 2012 is an off year for these po-sitions. There were also no local issues on the ballot.

The recent re-districting within New York may have had an effect on the local elections. Madison County was formerly part of District 23, a much larger district than Congressional Dis-trict 22, the district in which Madison County now resides.

“Redistricting had a huge impact on us,” Chairman of the Madison County Democratic Committee Mike Oot said. “Our current city representatives actually had to campaign in areas where they hadn’t previously represented people so they were new to those people … [from] a Madison County voter’s perspective, it completely changes their representation.”

Conversely, Chairman of the Madison County Republican Com-mittee Kenneth Kunkel said that the redistricting was “probably a wash.” He said the biggest change resulting from the redistricting was that Hanna, who is the Representative for District 24, now ran for the seat in District 22.

“[Hanna]’s on board and is go-ing to represent us in Congress very well,” Kunkel said.

Town of Hamilton Supervi-sor Eve Ann Shwartz said that she thinks Hanna’s chances of reelec-tion in a new district would be weaker, especially after only being a first-term congressperson.

Shwartz noted Hamilton has to acclimate to the other new communities in the redistricting.

“The redistricting is a difficult time for some communities to have a voice and I think that ours is one of those communities be-cause we’re not part of the existing incumbent dis-tricts so we’re not even getting the press coverage,” Shwartz said.

The political activity within Madison County is about average, but the Town of Hamilton has one of the coun-ty’s highest voter turnouts, accord-ing to Madison County Demo-cratic Election Commissioner Laura Costello.

Costello said that Madison County reached its goal of registering 40,000 new voters and has already polled 2,000 absentee ballots.

According to Moseley, there has been a shift in party affiliation within Hamilton toward a more Democratic leaning in the past twenty years.

“It used to be a rock red Republican town and village,” Moseley said.

Both the Democratic and Re-publican Committees of Madison County have been involved in sup-porting the local candidates in their parties preceding the election.

Oot said that the Democrat-ic Committee has gone door to door to distribute literature, hosted public dinners with high profile speakers and enlisted campaign fundraising.

“On a countywide basis, we are a very active committee,” Oot said. “My goals are to help Democratic candidates get elected.”

The College Democrats of Colgate University has also been involved with the congressional campaign; its members have held phone banks for Lamb and hosted a town hall style open forum with him on November 1.

“Everything that we do is coordi-nated with the local Hamilton Demo-crats,” College Democrats of Colgate University President junior Andy Phil-ipson said. “I do my best to keep them in the loop with what we do, and vice versa. I am very happy to have a great relationship with the major organizers in the Hamilton area.”

Philipson said that the College Democrats wanted to have a joint event with Hanna, but he refused.

The Republican Committee has also employed campaigning techniques to accomplish its objective.

“We have fundraisers and we support our candidates. We put up signs; we pass petitions. It’s kind of a thankless job but we do it. It’s the democratic way,” Kunkel said.

Q: Have you found any great distinc-tions between the education platforms of-fered by President Obama and Governor Romney?

A: In regard to the two candidates, their edu-cation platforms are relatively the same. They use different words to talk about the things that they want, so whereas Governor Romney will use words like “choice” and “vouchers,” President Obama will use words like “choice” and “charter schools.” At a very general level, their policies on education are basically the same. However, what is important is that they are the same in different ways. They have different ideological points of view, I think, that influence how they get to the same point. While I do think Governor Romney sees unions as impeding in the ways that markets are supposed to work, I think President Obama sees, especially because of the work he used to do, why unions are important. Not only that, but unions historically have made up a great part of the Democratic voting booth. He also thinks that the unions need to have less power in order for testing and the achievement gap to slowly decline. Neither of the candidates have educa-tion platforms or policies that even come close to speak to the issues about education in this coun-try. The one place where you do see some sort of differences is with President Obama’s platforms and programs for college students with loans. Governor Romney has not, to my knowledge, put out any types of programs that would help with relief for students paying back their loans, whereas President Obama has. He wants to make more money available through Pell grants for people to go to college and he wants to fund community colleges more, so that people can have access [to higher education]. He’s funding now lots of vocational types of schools, which one can certainly argue the merits of. There are some differences, especially when you get to higher ed-ucation and ask what is the federal government’s role in giving kids access to go to college. There’s a way in close analysis to show a few minor dif-ferences [between the educational policies of the candidates]. However, very generally speaking, they’re the same. But as I said before, they’re the same for very different reasons. Obama still sees things such as charter schools and Teach for America, and these types of programs that his administration funds, as being part of a legacy of social justice – what we might call the unfinished business of Brown v. Board of Education. It’s not just access to these schools, and what this looks like is charter schools, increased test-ing, leverage in teaching unions. Whereas I think Romney sees the types of policies that he would put on the table as de-regulating markets and allowing them to work to create a better product, which is better schools and bet-ter students, but “better students” is now defined through tests scores.

Q: What do you think about the in-creased emphasis on standardized testing in the public schools?

A: It’s objectifying to be labeled by tests scores. When teachers are in classrooms and know that they need to raise a student from a 50 to a 70, they lose who they are and all (the teacher) is trying to do is raise the student’s test score and the teacher starts treating the student as more of an object. I want to think that both of the candidates don’t just think about kids as test scores and objectifying them and getting an education to get a job. However, neither has gone at length to suggest otherwise.

Q: What issue should college kids focus on in this upcoming election?

A: We’ve lost, over the past 30 years, any type of rhetoric about education that has to do with citizenship and being part of political pro-cesses and practices. Both candidates only talk about education in terms of jobs in the econ-omy. President Obama, when he’s being more careful and not having to win votes, says things that are more interesting about education and that education should not be only about getting a job, but about empowerment, about knowing the world and being able to articulate the world that we live in and being able to critique the world. And that is patriotism and what it means to be a democrat-ic citizen – not “democratic” vot-ing Democratic, but in democratic theory, a demo-cratic citizen. If I was a college stu-dent, I would be looking for any type of glimpse of that – education can’t just be about getting a job. Our lives can’t just be about what it is that we’re going do between 9 and 5 and what types of paychecks we’re going to get. There’s just too much at stake. So if I was a college student, I would want to see a candidate trying to revive some of the rhetoric that’s been lost over the past thirty years in various ways. I would want to hear someone talk about how it’s not only that we need education to get jobs to get us through this, but we need education to give us language and ideas and dreams and hopes about what life can be like. How can life be otherwise than this, than recession, bull and bear markets, upturns, stock markets? What about the way we relate to each other social-ly? Morality? What are our responsibilities to other people? Those types of questions have completely fallen out of all rhetoric, not only in education.

Q: When do you think this change in rhetoric occurred?

A: I would probably say it happened with Reagan in the early ’80s, but it’s part of a much larger political and economic shift that this country has been going through since the early ’70s that has to do with the cult of privatization, the triumph of a market based democracy over a liberal democracy or social based democracy. These are much larger global shifts and we see that type of rhetoric leaving our various social realms in the beginning of the 1970’s with the reces-sion and the oil crisis, which radically im-pacted all of our political and economic lan-guages and experiences and lives. People still talk about it, but it’s like me: I talk about it and people here in the education studies department talk about it. Politicians don’t talk about it and people don’t talk about it. Instead, you get it in little nooks; people try-ing to revive what education can be about. Rather than testing these poor kids and poor communities to death, why not give them a type of education that allows them to un-derstand how it is that this type of poverty happens? How did I get to the place where I am? Why is my school failing? Why is my neighborhood failing? We can teach kids to read, write and do arithmetic, but you can teach them to do that in a lots of different ways and it can be a type of critical coming to consciousness and we just don’t see that in most schools today, sadly.

Q: What role has the candidates’ own educational experiences played in shaping their policies?

A: Their experiences in education give us some insight into this (their educa-tional platforms). Governor Romney had a type of education where he went to Stanford and then an MBA from Har-vard, and it did seem as if he knew where he going to go and how to get there, but President Obama’s education was more of a journey in a sense of self-becoming. From experiences, I think there are differ-ences. It’s hard to hear it in rhetoric – it doesn’t come out when the candidates are talking. I think President Obama wants kids to have access to education so they can similarly have those types of experi-ences that he had, which were eye opening. And I’m sure Governor Romney wants the same, but his story is a little different based on class background and his story is more scripted and straightforward than President Obama’s.

Contact Kerry Houston at [email protected]