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Education Policy Debates Look Different at Ground Level

Note: This week's guest-blogger is Mike McShane, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri.

Over the past year, I've seen a whole lot of the great state of Missouri as I've travelled around researching the state's education system and talking with various groups about improving Missouri's schools.  

Just since January, I've talked to the Branson Daybreakers Rotary club, which meets at the Golden Corral at 7:00 on Thursday mornings. I've spoken at the Discussion Club, a speakers' series that has been going on in St. Louis since the 1950s.  I sat on a panel for Kansas City Public Television with the Mayor of Kansas City—there was a "civility bell" just in case talk got too heated. I testified before both the House and Senate in Jefferson City. All told, Google Maps tells me I've driven more than 3,600 miles across the state since the first of the year, and I talked to anyone who was willing about making our schools better.

I say this because before moving back to my hometown to work on education issues, I worked for three years in DC. I attended many a confab and sat on a whole bunch of panels talking about what seemed to be the pressing issues facing education today. The folks I spoke with were good people who cared deeply about students. They were convinced that the issues they cared about were the ones that mattered to our communities.

The crowd at the Golden Corral might disagree.

Now, misunderstanding people who live in a different place or might think differently from us isn't just an education phenomenonit's a broader problem of our politics. In a fascinating paper, Douglas Ahler and Guarav Sood found that when a representative sample of Democrats was surveyed, they thought that 38% of Republicans earned more than $250,000 per year. In reality, it's 2%. Republicans weren't much better. They thought that 32% of Democrats identified as LGBT. It's 6%. Incredibly, the researchers found that perceptions were positively correlated with interest in politics. Yes, the more people care about politics, the less they know about people who think differently than them.

In education policy, those who participate in debates at a national level tend to follow politics pretty closely. They might think that their opinions are all the more informed because of their engagement, but they could be dead wrong about that. The issues they care about might not be the issues that resonate with everyday people across the country.

Here are a couple examples.

Some issues we routinely overlook are critically important to large swaths of the population that we're trying to serve. For example, here in Missouri, almost 400,000 students attend rural schools. On average they are poorer than their urban and suburban peers, they score lower on the ACT, and they have access to fewer higher-level courses. Sixty-two percent of Missouri's rural school districts did not have a single student take an AP class last year. Fifty-six percent had no students take calculus, 47 percent had no students take physics, and 23 percent had no students take chemistry. (I recently released a deep-dive into these issues. To say it was eye-opening would be a serious understatement.) This is outrageous, but for some reason these kids seem to evoke less sympathy than their urban and suburban peers, and they get precious little national attention.

There are other issues that we do talk about but misread the fault lines. With respect to school choice, for example, many of the most fervent and effective opponents today are not teachers unions or those with an entrenched interest in the status quo, as you might read on a blog somewhere. Instead they are private school leaders who worry that if they get in bed with the government they'll lose their autonomy and destroy what is unique about their schools. If you go to an education research conference or attend a panel discussion about school finance, you'll see that conservatives are routinely characterized as being wholly against spending more money on schools. But if you looked at Missouri's recent local school tax levy elections, numerous deep-red communities voted to tax themselves more to provide more money for their schools. The world is a lot more complicated than it appears from thousands of miles away.

If we actually take the time to understand people who think differently than we do, and don't just lump them hastily into a pile with all of the other people with whom we disagree, we would do a better job advancing the causes we care about.

I'm still learning, and later this week I hope to share several other insights I've picked up recently. I also want to talk about how they intersect with some cool new projects I have coming out in the near future, not the least of which is the new book Rick Hess and I wrote, Educational Entrepreneurship Today.

--Mike McShane

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