Will they ever learn?

By coincidence I have been in Washington, D.C., during the second government shutdown in two decades. Seventeen years ago, I was living here, as a Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, covering the last  shutdown debacle.

Both shutdowns were led by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, both led by Speakers who had taken over the gavel from a Democratic one.  Nearly two decades ago  Newt Gingrich succeeded then-Speaker Dick Gephardt. In the case of the current shutdown, Speaker John Boehner, accepted the gavel from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Where the two shutdowns differ is that the current one has been driven by a continuing and fruitless fight over what is essentially a nonbudgetary issue –  unrelenting Republican opposition to health care reform. By contrast, the 1995-96 shutdown followed President Clinton’s refusal to go along with a reduced federal budget approved by the House and Senate, at the time both controlled by the Republican Party.

Republicans and Democrats still argue whether the shutdown was harmful to which party.

In a 2011 commentary in the Washington Post, Gingrich argued that the 1995-96 shutdowns actually helped the GOP. But the preponderance of opinion point out that it helped usher in the re-election of Clinton in the November 1996 election against GOP-nominee Sen. Bob Dole.

As EdSource has noted, the shutdown will — for now at least — have a minimal impact on the finances of the public education system in the United States. But it is worth thinking about what impact the total breakdown of the democratic process at the highest levels of government are transmitting to our nation’s school children.

The Capitol Hill implosion has exposed a glaring problem in how the House operates. Instead of letting the entire House vote on an issue, the Speaker can simply hold legislation that doesn’t have the near unanimous support of his party.

But instead of being a teachable moment for our nation’s schools, the current shutdown will, like finance, also have a minimal impact in part because of the diminishing presence of effective civics education in our schools.

“Too often, our schools are doing a poor job of transmitting civic knowledge,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared in a speech on the subject.

Civic knowledge, as Justice (Sandra Day) O’Connor has said, is not inherited ‘through the gene pool’ or passed on in mother’s milk. It is learned – at school, and at the dinner table. And, too often, our schools are doing a poor job of transmitting civic knowledge.The last National Assessment of Educational Progress found that less than one-third of American fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade students are proficient in civics.

The erosion of civics education, however, is at least partially a result  of the federal government’s requirement that schools focus on a handful of subjects – math, reading, and to a lesser extent science — to satisfy the demands of the No Child Left Behind law.

Secretary Duncan noted:

That’s unacceptable. Schools should not have to choose between teaching math, reading, and science, and civics, government, and history. This must be a ‘both/and’ choice, not ‘either/or.’

At least some of our political leaders seem not to have learned that the only way a politically divided legislative branch can function is through compromise.  They also see to lacking a sense of history as well.  As I view a totally avoidable governance meltdown on Capitol Hill for the second time in two decades, I can’t help thinking of the over-cited but in this case totally apt axiom: Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”

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