Democrats School GOP on Education at the DNC

As I begin to come back to earth after Michelle Obama’s spectacular speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, what strikes me most about Day One in Charlotte is the contrast between the ways that the Democrats and the Republicans are talking about education.

Looking over the transcripts of the keynote speeches, the juxtaposition is stunning. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie noted that American schools are “failing to compete in the world” and suggested one path forward: reforming rules for teacher tenure. Christie followed up on this proposal with one of the most gagging lines of the convention: “Teachers don't teach to become rich or famous. They teach because they love children.” Who needs benefits, a living wage, classroom supplies or union protection when you have love?

Contrast Christie’s focus on union bashing with this passage from Mayor Julian Castro’s speech:

And it starts with education. Twenty years ago, Joaquin and I left home for college and then for law school. In those classrooms, we met some of the brightest folks in the world. But at the end of our days there, I couldn’t help but to think back to my classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. They had the same talent, the same brains, the same dreams as the folks we sat with at Stanford and Harvard. I realized the difference wasn’t one of intelligence or drive. The difference was opportunity.

In my city of San Antonio, we get that. So we’re working to ensure that more four-year-olds have access to pre-K. We opened Cafe College, where students get help with everything from test prep to financial aid paperwork. We know that you can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education. We know that pre-K and student loans aren’t charity. They’re a smart investment in a workforce that can fill and create the jobs of tomorrow. We’re investing in our young minds today to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.

And it’s paying off. Last year the Milken Institute ranked San Antonio as the nation’s top performing local economy. And we’re only getting started. Opportunity today, prosperity tomorrow.

While Christie rails against teachers, Castro explains poignantly how investments in education at the lowest and highest levels will help prepare a new generation of productive citizens. He pushes beyond “school choice”  Mitt Romney’s single, sad idea for education reform  to explain how specific policies from universal pre-K to Pell Grants promise to enhance the country’s global competitiveness.

It’s almost unfair to turn to the speeches by the nominees’ spouses. The First Lady “made Ann Romney’s speech look like a third grade book report,” as my former student Chelsea Sue wrote last night. Even Charles Krauthammer pronounced Michelle Obama’s address “a great speech” on Fox News, though his nose twitched visibly when those words escaped his lips.

But we need to dive back into the transcripts for a sense of how radically different Ann Romney and Michelle Obama’s priorities are when it comes to education. Mrs. Romney barely mentioned the issue in her deeply personal speech. Here is the sole line on the topic:

Under Mitt, Massachusetts’s schools were the best in the nation. The best. He started the John and Abigail Adams scholarships, which give the top 25 percent of high school graduates a four-year tuition-free scholarship.

Ann did not mention that Massachusetts students’ test scores were top in the nation before Mitt took office, or that the Adams scholars were selected with a faulty metric, or that the recipients of the scholarships often did not use them because they covered less than 7 percent of the total cost of college education.

For a better proposal, and a personal sense of what is at stake, we have to turn to the First Lady’s address. Here is part of what she said:

When it comes to giving our kids the education they deserve, Barack knows that like me and so many of you, he never could have attended college without financial aid. And believe it or not, when we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bill was actually higher than our mortgage. We were so young, so in love, and so in debt.

And that's why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid, and keep interest rates down because he wants every young person to attend college without a mountain of debt.

So, in the end for Barack, these issues are not political. They're personal. Because Barack knows what it means when a family struggles. He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids. Barack knows the American dream because he’s lived it.

This fall, as teachers and students as are heading back to the classrooms, it’s clear which party has their back.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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