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As President Barack Obama gives his much-discussed lecture to our nation’s students amid the near-constant chatter over health care reform, it’s worth asking: What audience will our Commander in Chief be speaking to?
As an initial aside, he will not be speaking to the schools in Rochester Michigan, Cabot Arkansas, or many other districts who initially agreed to show the speech before bowing out to pressure from parents and outside interest groups. The threat of communist indoctrination from the leader of the free world was just too strong, one can presume.
For the kids who will be tuning in at school, Obama will speak to a distinctively more diverse audience than any president before him. There are a myriad of statistics and reports that describe and analyze this profound shift, but one number that shows the true size of this change is that from 1968 to 1986, the number of Hispanic children in American schools has doubled.
In addition, children in America are now set in education tracks that have everyone comprehending concepts at a much earlier age than the generations before them. These two facts alone provide a more-difficult teaching atmosphere than ever before.
While such parsing of American education is certainly a national pastime in our system that contains thousands upon thousands of local school boards, persistent problems still plague our elementary school systems, even setting aside those that burden children well before they enter the door.
Today, the education debate over solutions to these persistent problems has largely revolved around two concepts with relatively new usage and understanding across the country: charter schools and vouchers.
These two broad policy ideas lead us to the second key distinction about President Obama’s audience in the education landscape.
First, as a charter school advocate, Obama is speaking to a nation with more charter schools than ever before. With Secretary of Education Duncan also now leading an innovative “Race to the Top” discretionary financing program focusing on linking funding to achievement using methods with precise reporting standards, the move to double the amount of charter schools in America continues.
Next, President Obama is speaking to an audience with more voucher programs than ever before, but the impetus for such programs has not been driven by this progressive administration. The drive for vouchers continues, but it has not yet caught hold of many in the mainstream American education establishment, and, whether as a result of this or not, vouchers are not in the place that charter schools are.
Among these two big shifts, increasing diversity and changing charter and voucher school models, America is struggling over big ideas about education, and itself.
Conservatives may be within the rights to question whether the cultural relativism of the far left is rising concurrent with the move toward some extreme forms of multicultural education the same as progressives are sound to express a healthy skepticism over whether a voucher is truly the most effective economic tool to socialize the cost and increase the efficiency of quality education for everyone.
The point is that American education remains a complex field and healthy debate and questioning is as critical as ever. Ultimately, always understanding the audience is the first crucial step, and, as in law, ignorance is no excuse.
The text of President Obama’s speech, as well as his reformist education tendencies, proves he understands his audience.
Chris Burks is a law student at the University of Arkansas.
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