In the alleged conflict between social and economic issues, watch out for the fallacy of the false dilemma.
A false dilemma also may muddle education reform debates in state legislatures.
Poorly performing teachers seem to be the prime target of education reformers such as Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.
But teacher advocates have pushed back with a more complex plea: that the root of the problem lies in poor parenting, especially absent fathers.
Parents do lay the foundation at home, ideally by teaching elementary reasoning skills and by exposing their children to reading, language arts, and math. To some parents the process comes naturally. Others need help to learn better parenting skills.
All-day kindergarten won't resolve the challenge of what happens in broken homes. A heroic single parent can make up a lot of lost ground, but teacher advocates note that parents can't be fired for having a child who is not ready for school.
"Someone needs to acknowledge that home factors play a huge part and stop pinning the blame mostly on teachers," says Tobin Rice, a school psychologist who has served as a juvenile probation officer in Indianapolis. "Fatherless home situations are not the source of all evil in the universe, but it is a huge contributing factor to lower academic outcomes-much bigger than teachers."
Bennett and other reformers have acknowledged this problem. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a potential presidential candidate, once put it this way: "If I could wave a magic wand and change just one thing, it would be to guarantee that every American child could grow up in a two-parent home until the age of 18. That would solve maybe three-quarters of our problems."
Indiana State Sen. Dennis Kruse plans to take another stab during the current legislative session at encouraging families to stay together with his covenant marriage proposal. Although his fellow legislators don't give the issue much attention, Kruse thinks the state should offer married couples the voluntary option of a covenant marriage license, in addition to the current one, in order to make divorce more difficult.
He knows his proposal won't magically fix families, but it is a step in the right direction. He also doesn't buy the argument that members of state legislatures ought to stick solely to economic issues.
"When the family breaks down, then we have more crime, more people in prison, more unwed mothers, more gang members, more welfare, more Medicaid costs," he says. "When the family is intact, it strengthens our society and people will produce better. A strong family actually spurs economic growth and reduces government spending significantly."
Likewise, in the education debate, the choice isn't between better teachers or stronger families. We need both.