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When Education and Politics Collide: Chicago Messes with Texas Edition

I’m not sure what it is with big people’s fascination with politics, and how discussions about education seem to cross over into the absurd the closer big elections get. Case in point: the Republican governor of Texas announces he is a candidate for President. Less than a week later, the Democratic U.S. Secretary of Education levels a bizarre and scathing critique at the Lone Star State:

“Far too few of their high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college,” Duncan said on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt” airing tonight and tomorrow. “I feel very, very badly for the children there.”

“You have seen massive increases in class size,” Duncan said of the Texas public school system during Perry’s terms as governor since December 2000. “You’ve seen cutbacks in funding. It doesn’t serve the children well. It doesn’t serve the state well. It doesn’t serve the state’s economy well. And ultimately it hurts the country.”

Eduwonk and Time Magazine education columnist (and Democrat) Andrew Rotherham was as puzzled as anyone by the Secretary’s broadside, and got a chance to follow up directly:

When I asked [Arne] Duncan about this dire assessment in an interview I had scheduled today for my next School of Thought column, the former head of the Chicago school system was light on specifics:

“Texas has challenges. The record speaks for itself. Lots of other states have challenges too. But there is a lot of hard work that needs to be done in Texas and a lot of children who need a chance to get a great education.”

To which edublogging guru Joanne Jacobs aptly replied:

The statement is meaningless: All states have challenges that require hard work. The question is whether Texas is shirking.

Both Rotherham and Jacobs point out that Texas hasn’t been shirking. A stellar performer? No, but certainly nowhere near the bottom. The Lone Star State’s graduation rate significantly outperforms the Windy City, where Duncan once ran the schools, and even Texas’ minority students edge out their Chicago counterparts. (To be fair, Rotherham has his own issues with Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s education platform and posits that “it’s debatable how much credit Perry deserves for education reforms that largely predate his administration.” But I’m not writing here to wade into these deep political waters.)

Further, the Secretary’s claim that Texas has witnessed “massive increases in class size” does not comport with reality — as analyzed both by PolitiFact and the Dallas Morning News. The line of criticism itself is strange enough given that only six weeks ago Duncan told a national news reporter that reform should focus more on teacher quality than class size.

But what do I know? I’m just a kid, and a lot of this political debate flies way over my head. Someone tells me the big election is 442 days away. If it only gets more absurd the closer we get to November 6, 2012, just how crazy is all this talk going to get?