Voices

Less is more

Campaign 2008 | The best thing about federal efforts in education is that they fail

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

It was bad enough to hear the proposals from the Barack Obama campaign. His wife Michelle was in southern Indiana, holding forth at a daycare center there, and promising voters that a President Obama will do everything he can to make sure the federal government significantly increases its role in preschool education.

According to the local TV station, Mrs. Obama had organized the casual discussion so she could "listen carefully" to prospective voters-especially women-talk about their needs. And now she was hearing tale after tale "about balancing work, kids, and keeping food on the table and gas in the tank." They say it's harder to do these days and Mrs. Obama says she and her husband understand all that.

Oh, yes. Mrs. Obama did say this wouldn't be easy. She said it "isn't a one-person job," and that if her husband becomes president he'll ask everyone to make sacrifices "for the good of the country"-so that, I guess, we can pull off vast projects like federalized daycare for preschoolers.

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That, as I say, was bad enough. What I wasn't prepared for was word that certain gurus involved in the John McCain campaign were scurrying to see how they could match such promises and still hold on to some claim to a "conservative" identity. Reports have spread over the last few weeks that McCain's education advisor, Lisa Graham Keegan, has been pushing staffers for more and better ideas that would help McCain come across as someone who was "doing things" in the area of education.

Please, Sen. McCain-don't. If Keegan comes up with a briefing book full of such proposals, please politely ignore them. Just tell her thanks, and then lose the briefing book.

No, that's not totally fair to Keegan, who appears to be one of the very best education advisers a major political candidate might be expected to latch onto. She is the former superintendent of public instruction in Arizona but has been a serious backer of charter schools there and even of vouchers for private schooling in some situations. In 1998, she received the Milton Friedman Foundation Award for free enterprise innovation in education.

But just the same, Sen. McCain-please don't try to match the Democrats when it comes to education reform or grand new achievements for preschoolers or elsewhere on the daycare front. Things are in a pretty bad state in education, and one of the best things you could do is to have the federal government admit that education isn't its specialty.

I've said before in this space, and it needs to be said during just about every presidential campaign, that there is something much more potentially terrifying than to watch the government continue to fail in its efforts to prop up education in this country. Much worse than such a continuing failure would be to watch the government succeed.

Shaping the minds and the value system of our children is simply not the proper function of government-almost certainly not at any level, but especially at the distant federal level.

If your child's school chooses never to mention what Jesus calls "the first and great commandment of life"-to love the Lord our God with all we have-all the rest of that school's education will be as hollow as it is shallow. And even worse will be the effort, so often attempted (and sincerely so), to address some expression of the second great commandment-"loving your neighbor as yourself"-without having dealt seriously with the first one. The first provides both skeleton and heart for the second; the second is impossible without the first.

Society needs to understand, and so do evangelical Christians, that the real problem with state education today (and even with much private education) has nothing to do with teachers' salaries or funding levels or phonics or curriculum or how many months of the year or hours of the day children go to school. All those things have their significance and are worth discussing at the right time.

But the right time for that is always after settling what education is really about. Until educators get that straight, they're not going to get anywhere with "education reform." And they have no business talking about stretching the federal government's reach into preschool and daycare-where the best they will ever do is to compound their present clumsiness.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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