As intriguing ideas go, this one sounded great.
Pairing consumer advocate Ralph Nader against former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to debate education in front of thousands of school board members and administrators promised some fireworks.
At times, they delivered. The high point was when Nader took on what he perceived as the wastefulness of the Homeland Security budget. He pointed out the neglected dangers at home that aren't being adequately addressed, ranging from overmedication to lead-based paint to parental neglect. "There is no country in the world that has as much wealth or as much pretention and has neglected its children in so many ways" he said.
Gingrich's reply was stinging. "Ralph and I live in substantially different countries. I live in a country that people migrate to, because they think it's the land of opportunity. While there are problems, we'll fix them."
The real surprise was how much the two seemed to agree. The 2000 Green Party presidential candidate and the Speaker who launched the Contract With America seemed close on vouchers. Nader was against vouchers, saying that taking people and money out of the public school system would make everyone less inclined to fight to fix it. Gingrich, who had to know his pro-voucher stand would be a tough sell at this venue, stated his voucher support within a torrent of praise for public school systems. "No child should be trapped in a school that fails to educate them," Gingrich said to applause.
Gingrich surprised the crowd when he railed against government's unfunded mandates, saying, "We have added a layer of federal micromanagement on top of state micromanagement on top of litigation." He stopped short of mentioning No Child Left Behind or President Bush specifically.
Nader didn't. He said, "Multiple-choice standardized tests lead to multiple forms of specialized fraud. The whole curriculum is being twisted to teach to the test." And he was clear to blame President Bush for pushing this agenda.
Although the format was imperfect, and the time allotted to each speaker too short, it was good to hear two intelligent, passionate people debate education's problems and spend so much energy trying to come up with answers.