Partisanship Is Ruining Public Education

06/07/2012 09:24 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2012

If it seems like the political gulf has widened in America, it's not just the beginning of the presidential election season. "As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years." That was the disturbing but not surprising report released yesterday by the Pew Research Center. Polarization is making American dumber and less competitive.

Polarization is reducing our civic problem solving capacity. Thomas Homer Dixon was right a decade ago when he predicted an Ingenuity Gap. Our problems have grown more complex and interrelated and our ability to thoughtfully address them has plummeted. Take for example, congressional failure to deal with mounting federal debt, culminating in the stalled National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010. So now we're in for dumb cuts instead of smart solutions.

The recall election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, being held today, sets a bad precedent, according to Andy Rotherham. He noted that it "is clear from our increasingly broken politics, we've lost the ability to work with those with whom we disagree, or to respect elections and the process of governance enough to let it run its course."

Polarization is damaging public education with an increase in dysfunctional school boards, fringe diversions, incoherent state policy, and federal gridlock. Only a decade ago a bipartisan reauthorization of federal education legislation ushered in a new data-driven framework. You may not agree with all of it, but at least there was evidence of design thinking in D.C.

Evidence of bipartisanship is slim these days. While we spent a decade bickering, the Chinese have been building infrastructure. As James Fallows notes in China Airborne, the Chinese committed $250 billion to jump-start its aerospace industry.

This country is stuck on old problems and entrenched in disingenuous debate fueled by Super PAC superficiality. But thoughtful commentators agree that the innovation economy requires a few things: growth oriented policies, low tax rates, transparent and efficient government, and an opportunity platform that includes effective education and health services and efficient energy and transportation infrastructure.

It's not just a question of more or less government -- the challenge is to create high functioning public services that fuel growth and create opportunity. If you clear the political hype, leaders of both parties aren't that far apart on these issues. All the money that flows into campaigns these days has exacerbated differences and forces politicians to the fringe in the primaries.

The technology revolution is creating new opportunities that reframe old problems. New drilling technology reframed our conception of natural resources. Clean tech is reframing our conception of consumption. In education, digital learning and empowered consumers have reframed the debate about educational choice. The flood of data from embedded assessments will obliterate the old standardized testing debate. Environments that blend online and onsite learning are leveraging talent with technology and reframe the teacher effectiveness debate.

Polarization is bad for our kids. The solution set is pretty clear. But all the money sloshing around in our political system makes it hard for us to listen to each other (and we need to invent a constitutional way to deal with that). Our cities and states need pro-growth and pro-opportunity platforms. That means giving up some luxuries of the past, investing where it will pay off, and treating each other with some common courtesy.