[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 28, 2000/2 pp21-23]
[See other journal articles by John J Reilly.]

The Political Context of Spelling Reform in the USA.

John J. Reilly.

John J. Reilly is a writer and editor (incl. American editor for JSSS) who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, USA. He writes extensively on culture and politics. Mr. Reilly's most recent book is "Apocalypse & Future" (Xlbris). A large section devoted to spelling reform is located on his website. See links.

Orthographic opportunities?

Most things you need to know are explained on "The Simpsons". Whenever the people of the mythical cartoon-city of Springfield vote for some collective folly, someone at the town meeting will ask, "Won't somebody please think of the children?" For better or worse, the major candidates in the recent US presidential elections seemed to think of little but the children. At any rate, that was what they preferred to talk about, often and at length. While neither major party advocated anything as ill-advised as that shoot-on-sight curfew that Springfield voted for in one episode, there was little in the political debate to suggest any openness to radically new approaches in promoting literacy. On the other hand, a review of the role of education in the 2000 election does suggest some institutional opportunities for making orthography an issue in the future.

Governor George W. Bush, the candidate of the Republican Party, made a particular point of talking about education and of being photographed in the act of visiting classrooms. The campaign of Vice President Al Gore of the Democratic Party did not neglect education, but his child-policy had a somewhat broader scope; universal medical coverage for all children was also a key theme. The platforms of the two chief parties had prominent sections devoted to education, with the chief emphasis given to primary education and pre-school programs. The relevant provisions went like this:

Platform of the Republican Party.

Under the heading "Leave No American Behind," the Republican platform declared: "It's long past time to debate what works in education. The verdict is in, and our Republican governors provided the key testimony." Most American states have Republican governors, Texas not the least. Like George W. Bush, the governors have been emphasizing education policies of a back-to-basics sort for some years, and not without success. The platform outlined the usual mix: "strong parental involvement, excellent teachers, safe and orderly classrooms, high academic standards, and a commitment to teaching the basics -- from an early start in phonics to mastery of computer technology...." Here is how the platform envisaged these things being applied nationally:

In this list, there are certain items that should make a spelling reformer's ears prick up. The endorsement of phonics is one (a particular favorite of the influential conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation), as well as the call for "initiatives that focus on scientifically based reading research..." Less obviously relevant, but perhaps just as significant, is the emphasis on "charter schools" and on "allowing federal dollars to follow...children to the school of their [parents'] choice."

Charter schools are state funded, but with programs and curricula devised by parents or community groups, or even by educational entrepreneurs. This business about "federal dollars following the children" is a somewhat elliptical endorsement of the policy of giving vouchers to children for their educational expenses and letting them spend it at any school that will admit them, public or private. Either option leaves teachers much more latitude in deciding how to teach reading. We should note, though, that while teacher's unions can barely bring themselves to tolerate charter schools, the idea of vouchers going to private schools makes them livid.

Platform of the Democratic Party.

This brings us to the Democrats. Under the caption "Investing in Americans" their platform said that "We cannot afford -- materially or morally -- to let another generation of American children pass through inadequate schools before we make needed changes that will save them from a lifetime of frustration and limited resources..." There then followed a list of things that should be done "by the end of the next presidential term." (The alarmingly specific deadline for accomplishing all the following good things is therefore January 20, 2005, 17:00 hrs. GMT:

The platform then goes on to promise that the "Democratic Party will triple the number of charter schools," while denouncing the voucher concept for sending "the public's hard-earned tax dollars to private schools with no accountability..."

Comparing the platforms.

If these two programs seem to differ only in emphasis, that is because they do. As Ryan Lizza pointed out in the moderate-Left magazine, "The New Republic"(August 21), both programs are in fact based on a paper put out by the Progressive Policy Institute. This think tank is closely linked to the Democratic Leadership Council, the American incarnation of Third Way politics. President Clinton and Al Gore have been involved with the DLC since its inception in the 1980s. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was its chairman at the time of his nomination.

There are significant differences in the amount of additional money the two parties proposed to spend on education, as well as how they proposed to spend it. The Republicans were contemplating spending $13.5 billion in federal money on their program over three years, mostly for vouchers and tax credits. The Democrats were talking about three times as much, with large, direct expenditures for school construction, smaller classes, more teacher training and universal preschooling. We may note that, whatever else the Democratic approach might achieve, it would certainly function as a jobs program for teachers. Another major feature of the Democratic approach that pleases the unions is the lack of teacher accountability for the performance of individual students.

Lizza suggested that the differences between the two sides is more apparent than real. The fact is, he says, that "many Democrats are sick to death of the unions' resistance to standards with teeth [and] many Republicans have given up on vouchers, which don't attract much public support." So, he says, no matter what happens in the election in November, "sensible Democrats and sensible Republicans may wake up from the spin and discover that they don't disagree on very much." This may well be true, and it may be important, but not for the reasons that at first appear.

Education as a federal non-issue.

The reason we are talking about education at all is that the subject polls well with women. Specifically, according to political analysts, it polls with married, white women living in those Midwestern states that might swing to either party. It is hard to exaggerate its irrelevance to the official functions of the presidency, or even to the federal government as a whole. The New York Times ran a special education supplement (August 6) that dealt in large part with the issue's new political salience. James W. Guthrie, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, was given the opportunity to explain the limited significance of federal education policy.

For one thing, though the US spends on the order of $700 billion on education every year, only 6% to 7% comes from the federal government, and much of that money is narrowly targeted to things like special education. The fact is that there is nothing in the federal Constitution about education. Almost all the taxing, spending and work in this area are done by the 50 separate state systems and their 15,000 local school districts. While noting that this degree of decentralization makes it hard to do anything at all on a national level, Guthrie also points out that "this complexity would also present an awesome obstacle to the brainwashing aspirations of any prospective despot." Let them who dream of a Neo-Orthographic Dictatorship take note.

What can be done at federal level?

Guthrie says that there are important things that can be done at the federal level. American schools improved conspicuously in the 1990s, he points out, in no small part because of the "Nation at Risk" report that was issued during the Reagan Administration. Though President Reagan did not have a particularly substantive education policy, he and his Secretary of Education, William Bennett, used the report to browbeat education officials at all levels into setting higher standards. Exhortation counts for a lot, particularly in a system where local boards of education are normally both powerful and elected.

Something else the federal government can do is research. Guthrie complains that there "is almost no powerful research conducted about education matters. America's philanthropic foundations have virtually abandoned the field of serious inquiry in favor of supporting will-o'-the-wisp fads that ultimately only reinforce the status quo."

What hope for spelling reform?

What hope for spelling reform does this review give us? There is some. For instance, we see that there are literally thousands of venues in which to question the fundamental adequacy of the English orthographic system. On the other hand, the increasing emphasis on parental control does not necessarily bode well. Parents take poorly to having their children experimented on. Spelling reform may well sound like just another half-baked experiment, if it is proposed by the education establishment. Only if the parents raise the issue themselves can the fear of Newspeak be avoided. In any case, it is clear that the US education system could no more engineer a national orthographic revolution than a jellyfish could turn a somersault.

The opportunities are not only local: we have seen the influence that private think tanks can have on national policy. For that matter, if the federal government does in fact begin to subsidize more education research, there is no reason why some of the money should not go into grants to study the suitability of the orthographic system itself. Some comparative studies of the way that English and Spanish handle orthographic change might be well-received, for instance. Others will easily come to mind. Isn't this what we have graduate students for?

The chief problem that is faced by spelling reform in these opening years of the 21st century is that the idea is quite literally unthinkable to most English speakers. While it would be foolish, and maybe tyrannical, to hope to use the power of the state to impose a new spelling system on unwilling populations, politics can nevertheless play a key role, as one of several avenues through which people can be familiarized with the idea. The possibilities for politicizing spelling reform certainly exist. All that is lacking is a strategy.

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