Today is the first day of school in our suburban jurisdiction. The bus stops were crowded with parents, taking photographs of the new first graders and kindergarten kids.
It is a fairly momentous day, as well, because the local school superintendent has announced he is retiring at the end of this school year. Since 1999, Montgomery County, Md. Superintendent Jerry Weast has done a spectacular job keeping test scores and graduation rates up and closing the gap between white and not-so-white kids in our wealthy but rapidly urbanizing county, where minority populations are now the majority in many schools.
Weast has had, as his ally, the local teachers union. He has backed pay increases, in good times, to lure better teachers to the system, and the teachers in these tough times have responded by giving back negotiated raises. Together, Weast and his staff, and the professionals in the classroom, have done a fine job supporting a community of engaged and involved parents.
It's the future that is worrisome. Education is an issue that is best addressed by the kind of consensus-building that Weast was good at. He would sometimes employ smoke and mirrors to dazzle or divert--what great public official doesn't? But his great gift was making the haves see how the improved performance of the have-nots was in everyone's interest. A great public school system helps both rich and poor kids get into, and prosper at, fine colleges and universities at a time when post-secondary education is a crucial element in economic success.
So here's the question, both local and national: Can we continue to build that kind of consensus in today's fractious, partisan climate? Or is education the next big issue where the demagogues push us into the Democrats vs. Republicans, old vs. young, liberals vs. conservatives divide?