Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Conversation with Governor Vilsack

I had the pleasure of participating in a conference call of education bloggers with Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa) this morning. He's started an organization called Heartland PAC to support progressive Democratic candidates in gubernatorial races (there will be 38 of them in '06).

For the next three weeks, they will focus policy discussions at their website on progressive policy solutions to education issues. There is a great need for this. I'm convinced that many conservatives want to undermine public education to achieve their goal of universal school vouchers and privatization of education. But the institution of public schooling is still very much supported by the vast majority of Americans. This gives progressives a chance to make political gains while supporting important policy positions-- a classic win-win.

But it means nothing if progressives don't have a clearly articulated vision for education. Thus, the conversation the Governor has started is extremely important.

The Governor's main policy initiative, as far as I could gather, is universal preschool. I attended a hearing of the Texas House Public Education Committee this year in which a Houston school board member (and self-described Republican) said that universal pre-K is the single most important thing policymakers could do to improve education. Too many students come to school underprepared and start behind the curve. It's unfair to them and extremely costly to the schools (and ultimately to taxpayers) to catch them up on what they've missed in preschool. Gov. Vilsack is smart to make this a focus of his progressive initiative on education. It's good politics (who's going to oppose it except for the conservative fringe) and it's good policy, too.

He also talked quite a bit about the competition American students face from an ever increasing number of well-educated Indian and Chinese students (an obvious nod to Thomas Friedman's best-seller, The World is Flat). The Governor told my students, some of whom were on the call (it was at 10:30 am and I thought it'd be educational for them), that they aren't competing anymore with kids in other Texas schools or in Iowa schools. They're now competing against Chinese and Indian kids.

It's hard to argue against the point which is all the more reason why I think we need a significant new investment in our educational system.

The Governor's aide said a recording of the conversation would be on the Heartland PAC website soon. I'll link to it when it's there. I really appreciate Gov. Vilsack reaching out like that and I hope that other political candidates will do the same. There's no doubt that education blogs can be a source of innovative policy ideas and can serve as a link between progressives in different parts of the country.

In short, there is no doubt in my mind that Gov. Vilsack is a very thoughtful politician, which is, all too often, an oxymoron. I look forward to hearing more about his education positions in the weeks to come. For a much fuller description of the conversation from another blogger on the call, Jay Bullock, click here.

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