Politics of ‘and’ instead of ‘or’Commentary

That our politics should be more about “and” than “or” first occurred to me in the late 1990s.

This was the raging debate in those days: Was Ken Starr an abusively partisan prosecutor or was Bill Clinton a shameful perjurer? I always thought the “or” should have been replaced with “and” and the question answered thunderously in the affirmative.

Both poles can be wrong and right.

That brings us to the modern debate over public education. Should we try bold new initiatives to seek to reform a tragically failing system of public education in which blacks and Hispanics continue to under-perform? Or should we defend and help, not blame, our dedicated public educators and relieve them of sole responsibility for closing this gap, relying instead on early childhood programs, school-based health clinics and other societal reforms of more universally shared responsibility?

What you ought to do there, you see, is take out the “or” and substitute “and.” Then answer “yes,” thunderously.

So it came to be in June that the bitterly competing camps in our education debate — business-minded reformers on one side and teachers’ union defenders on the other, to simplify — put out competing manifestos. The business-minded reformers called for get-tough policies to push teachers and the education establishment to produce measurable improvements. The teachers’ union defenders argued that schools can’t be held singularly responsible for closing the racial achievement gap and that other initiatives outside schools had to be undertaken.

There was this one fellow, and only one, who signed both manifestos.

President-elect Barack Obama just made him the secretary of education.

Is this man, Arne Duncan, Chicago schools superintendent, a straddler trying to have things both ways? Is Obama trying the same thing?

This is the first substantive signal of the politics of “and” instead of “or.” Duncan believed the two manifestos weren’t mutually exclusive, but supplemental, even collaborative. He believes the solution rests in putting them into the same paragraph, not keeping them in polarized universities.

As it happens, he’s a Harvard pal and pick-up basketball buddy of Obama, who has railed against “our tired educational debates.”

In fact, whenever skeptics doubted Obama’s assertion of a new kind of politics, the most substantive positive argument, the ready example suggesting something actually new, was Obama’s expressed attitude toward education reform.

He was friendly with the teachers’ unions. But he declared himself open to different thinking to attack the very crisis of lost generations poorly served by the status quo of American public education. He liked charter schools. He thought performance-based pay for teachers was suitable for experimentation. He even let slip that we might even throw some private school vouchers at the inner-city situation.

Meantime, Obama’s friend running the Chicago schools was putting much of that into practice. Duncan was closing failing schools and replacing them with charter schools and so-called “renaissance” schools. He was imposing a performance-based pay system for teachers that had been accepted by teachers through a collaborative design.

There was no miracle in Chicago, but there were glimpses of improvement. So this is what happened the day Obama announced Duncan’s choice: The American Federation of Teachers issued an approving statement. The National Education Association issued an approving statement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued an approving statement.

Let’s hope that’s not mere superficial politeness. Let’s hope this is all about the emergence of “and” and the decline of “or.”

There is, after all, a third crisis in America, as frightful as the economic and foreign policy ones. It’s that we’re not teaching our kids.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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