October 21, 2013

GLICK: From Discord Towards Discussion: Cornell’s Role in Reshaping American Education

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Thursday evening, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will headline a presentation at Bailey Hall, discussing the future of education reform in the United States. Alongside the Governor will be Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the State University of New York school system. I’ve read and heard that President Skorton will moderate the discussion, which conjures in my mind images of an epic and ultimately irreconcilable debate, the likes of which many of us experienced when Howard Dean and Rick Santorum clashed in Bailey Hall last year. I think it would be a mistake, however, to view this event as a debate between two diametrically opposed forces, whose tangential similarities will be over-emphasized by an even-handed moderator in order to provide some constructive sense of “closure” for all those attending. This discussion, unlike the election-year paeans of Dean and Santorum, has the potential to remind Cornell of its pivotal position in the American educational system, and the duty we all have in the reshaping of it.

While I think it would be highly premature — unrealistic, even — to call Governor Bush a frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination, this newest scion of the oft-maligned political dynasty represents a vision of the GOP that is refreshingly pragmatic. Thus, even if he is not sufficiently intransigent to outmaneuver Rand Paul and Marco Rubio in three years, it is important for us to hear what the governing wing of the Republican Party has to say. After two weeks of far-right hysteria, let us once again strive towards a future in which neither party has a monopoly on ideas. With that being said, however, we must first examine what those ideas are.

Jeb Bush’s constructively conservative vision of education reform hinges on a much-discussed linkage between teacher pay and performance, as well as an increased emphasis on standardized testing that he pursued in his “A+ Plan” in Florida. This performance-based approach to public education,  recently bandied about by political figures across the political spectrum, is certainly an important component of any 21st century overhaul of American education. But Governor Bush’s demonization of the public school system as “a labyrinth of political, bureaucratic and union empires that depend on a captive population of students and minimal quality control” —  a characterization he made to the Associated Press earlier this month — fails to grasp the modern dream of American education.

As it so happens, Cornell University encapsulates the very essence of this dream.

Chancellor Zimpher, who will presumably be a staunch rhetorical advocate for the continued robustness of our public education system, stands at the helm of arguably the greatest educational endeavor in the history of this nation: the SUNY system. The contemporary sexiness of school vouchers and charter schools undermines the monumental nature of what certain states — New York and California, for example — have already achieved in terms of higher education. Public investment in education is only a fool’s errand if the investment is an insufficient one. Anti-tax hysteria, coaxed into prominence by the Bush family, has made it nearly impossible for the Republican Party to allocate adequate financial resources to our public educational system, on both state- and nationwide levels. This, in a sort of self-fulfillingly prophetic approach to governance, has made the apparent need for private sector remedies to our educational quandaries seem all the more necessary.

President David Skorton, and the University he leads, represent a crucial fusion of public commitment to and private investment in higher education. Cornell’s ability to open the doors of an Ivy League institution to New Yorkers whose payments are subsidized by the impressive social construct of the SUNY system is unique, impressive and emblematic of the direction in which American education must move.

One cannot begin to dismantle a century-old commitment to public education because there is a perceived ability in the private sector to adequately intervene. Only a public system, which is motivated not simply by profit, but also by concern for the citizens’ welfare, can ideally guarantee a valuable education for all young people desirous of one. No charter school or private college can make that same, universal promise — nor should they be required to do so. It is not the job of private institutions to provide for the general welfare, even if we, as a society, would like them to act in that way. Private desires for educational improvement must only serve as a supplement to the existing and more-than-adequate infrastructure of educational institutions.

In a perfect world, Jeb Bush’s vision of performance-based, union-free and charter school-heavy education would increase parental choices and educational opportunities. In reality, however, we must realize that this ambitious revamping of American education must remain true to public education apparatuses, such as the SUNY system, that have improved the lives of so many students who would have been shut out from private (and expensive) institutions. Cornell proves that this hybrid vision — in which the bedrock of public education is reinforced, rather than undermined, by private enterprise — is a workable model for the nation. I hope that in Thursday’s discussion, Governor Bush and Chancellor Zimpher treat their doubtlessly contrasting visions of American education not as fundamentally opposed, but potentially complementary.

It’s about time our leaders started talking that way.

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