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Ben Carson on education
Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks at a town hall, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Panora, Iowa. Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Presidential candidate Ben Carson has some homework to do.

Carson, a Republican, just released “Five principles to restore American exceptionalism in our schools.” Carson cites data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the 2015 math and reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to illustrate his belief that “[w]ithout change, our children will not be prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.”

This sounds familiar. In 2008, controversial D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee said, “We need to see radical changes because the outcomes for kids that are happening right now are robbing them of their futures.” But this isn’t about Rhee. You can easily replace the award-winning physician’s “prognosis” with a number of quotes from the ghosts of reform advocates past. This is general problem with Carson’s “plan.”

On the education page of Carson’s campaign website, the subheading of his platform reads, “To be successful, we must take the federal bureaucracy out of education and concentrate on empowering the American people.” This comes from one of his five principles, “empower parents, teachers, local school districts and the states – Not Washington,” which sounds more like pledge than a principle. Nevertheless, did Team Carson miss the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) just a month ago, which essentially did what he plans to implement if elected?

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One of the bill’s sponsors, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said, “The huge bipartisan vote in both the Senate and the House reverses the trend toward a national school board and makes clear that, in the future, the path to higher standards, better teaching and real accountability will be through states, communities and classrooms and not Washington, D.C.”

Certainly, Carson can disagree with Alexander, but if Carson wants to reduce the feds’ role even further then he should have clarified that he’s abreast of current policy changes. Still, there isn’t anything wrong with Carson’s “prognosis,” except that it’s at least 10-20 years too late. Carson essentially rolled out the ‘90s playbook for the education reform movement of the 2000s, which kind of closed out with the most recent passage of ESEA.

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Another of Carson’s education principles, “school choice,” sounds like an actual principle to build upon, but it’s one of the most vapid of principles in the U.S. Saying you support choice in the United States is like saying you believe in air. I was hoping to get a sense of how Carson differentiates his brand of choice from say a blue-jeans manufacturer. Carson’s website states, “I will actively support school choice programs, such as school vouchers and charter schools, so every student has the opportunity to fully realize his or her God-given potential.” Okay, a jeans manufacturer may not make this pledge, but many other choice organizations would — nothing exciting here.

“The U.S. Department of Education can look deadpan at Carson and his plan to streamline and say, ‘We’ve done this already.’”

“Encourage Innovation,” is the least innovative phrase one can utter in education next to “disrupt,” “laser light focus,” “data driven” and “adult issues.” Still, Carson has it as one of his five “pillars.” An aside – ban the aforementioned jargon from the education lexicon.

Carson even “double-downs” on the failed teacher evaluation of the last seven years. Under the principle “reward good teachers,” The candidate pledges, “I will advocate for flexible block grants to the states to advance and reward teacher quality, and to develop teacher evaluation systems that focus on effectiveness in advancing student achievement.” There’s a little more policy meat here but not enough to feed a family of four. Again, this is a rehash of the last decade. But it’s a rehash of things that Republicans and Democrats agreed to toss in the policy trash heap under the new ESEA rewrite.

Finally, Carson proposes a “simpler, streamlined student loan process.” Late last year the U.S. Department of education announced changes that would simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process. In particular, students will be able to file earlier and families can use income information from an earlier tax year. When the feds are beating you to the punch, then you’re clearly not keeping pace. Just a reminder, a presidential candidate should illuminate ideas that advance the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education can look deadpan at Carson and his plan to streamline and say, “We’ve done this already.”

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I get it. Carson wants to use the conservative bait of school reform to rejoin the strange bedfellows of free market conservatives, limousine liberals and other Democrats who act like Republicans. However, this unholy marriage has fallen apart. Ask John Bel Edwards, who soundly beat Senator David Vitter for the Governor seat in Louisiana. Take a serious look at the ‘14 midterm elections. Each party is finding it more difficult to win by taking a non-partisan, Pollyannaish “it’s all about the kids” approach to building widespread voter support.

The conservative blog described Carson’s education platform as a “plan.” However, Carson just rehashed old quotes and attempted to open wounds to drum up some excitement for his withering campaign. This tactic didn’t work for him before. As he faced the heat of scrutiny over his foreign policy knowledge, Carson rolled out his heath care plan, which didn’t give him a boost either.

Carson’s presidential campaign seemingly didn’t do its homework on education policy of recent past so how can he prepare us for the future?

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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