In Nashville it was merit pay for teachers. In Shawnee, Kan., it was federal interference in a state jurisdiction. And last week in Los Angeles, it was the need to strengthen school curricula. For the past month President Ronald Reagan has delivered more speeches on education than he has on the crisis in Central America or on any other topic. In the process, the White House has elevated education to the number 1 U.S. political issue of the day.
The dimensions of the debate are broad, and its implications are profound. But at its root is a nationwide consensus that the state of education in the United States is deeply troubled. That gloomy assessment is apparent in a series of recent studies, including a bipartisan presidential commission which concluded an 18-month investigation in April by warning ominously, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”
The commission’s report—“A Nation At Risk”—recommended a sweeping and controversial set of reforms, including higher academic standards, longer school years and merit pay for deserving teachers. But agreement on the problems besetting U.S. public schools—functional illiteracy, wide-
spread crime and drug abuse and sharp declines in standard achievement test (SAT) scores—is not matched by accord on the solution. For example, Reagan and a number of state and local school boards have championed the notion of merit pay. “If we want excellence,” the president noted recently, “we must reward it.” However, teachers in the 1.7million-member National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s secondlargest union, have repeatedly opposed merit pay. At its annual convention last week in Philadelphia, NEA Executive Director Don Cameron called merit pay a rabbit that Reagan had pulled from his hat for political purposes.
But Reagan’s high-profile campaign has put the NEA on the defensive. Its rival, the 580,000-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has said that the question is no longer whether or not to support the concept, but what sort of merit-pay plan would best suit public education needs. And the NEA’s Philadelphia meeting signalled a visible retreat from previous hard-line positions on the issue: the association agreed to “seriously review and consider” the plan.
Whatever the fate of merit pay, both unions agree that teachers’ basic salaries must be raised to attract and keep quality educators. The average U.S. primary school teacher earns $24,050
(Cdn.) a year, compared to $25,320 for a high school teacher. Reagan, too, has supported higher salaries, but not if they must be paid from federal coffers. His back-to-basics theme is usually accompanied by the reminder that public schools were strongest when there was no federal aid to, or control over, education. “We do not have an education problem because we are not spending enough,” the president said in Albuquerque, N.M., last month. “We have an education problem because we are not getting our money’s worth for what we spend.”_
That view is directly at odds with both teachers’ groups and with most of the Democratic party’s presidential candidates. The AFT president, Albert Shanker, last week said that massive infusions of federal aid would be needed to restore excellence to the school system. And former vice-president Walter Móndale, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination in 1984, has recommended a new $13.2-billion package of federal programs to raise salaries and improve standards.
But Reagan’s drive seems to be aimed at sowing seeds of division within the teachers’ lobby and at taking the entire education issue away from the Democrats. For Reagan, putting merit pay on the nightly newscasts has less to do with pay scales themselves than with
dictating the pace, tone and terms of the education debate for the 1984 presidential campaign. By that measure, at least, the president has so far succeeded.
But another major battle over tuition tax credits looms. The administration has promoted the scheme as a form of tax relief for the parents of the nation’s five million private school students. Most of them are blue-collar Roman Catholics, so the Reagan initiative is popular in a constituency that the president will need in 1984. But many educators believe that such new credits would produce an exodus of students from the public system and further degrade its performance. Moreover, some constitutional lawyers have challenged the proposal as a violation of the nation’s historic separation of church and state.
In Canada, meanwhile, the education debate remains muted and centres on a growing desire by parents and educators to see a return of core curriculum to the classroom. Said Bernard Shapiro, director of the Toronto-based Ontario Institute for Studies in Education: “We have come through a time in this country in which it was fashionable to be concerned not with what our kids learned but how they felt about what they were learning. But that is changing. Now we are moving back into a more structured system.” The signs are already visible. The Alberta government announced early this year that comprehensive high school examinations would become compulsory in that province by next year. And, after a recent report on the Ontario school system, that province has ordered high schools to teach more basic subjects and will introduce a tighter evaluation system.
But U.S. concerns over teachers’ salaries are not mirrored in Canada. “There is no doubt that our teachers are better trained and better paid than their American equals,” says Fred Sweeney, president of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation and a member of the board of directors of the 227,000-member Canadian Teachers’ Federation. In 1982 the average salary for elementary school teachers in Canada was $26,700. High school teachers averaged $31,470.
As the quality-of-learning controversy builds in the United States, Reagan appears to have seized control of the education agenda. Recent polls show that most Americans believe that his policies are helping education. The White House strategy is politically opportune, but it does not confront the larger questions, especially who will pay for better schools and longer school years. In that sense, the U.S. debate over education is just beginning.
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