Amid all the bad economic news and forecasts of financial troubles, the TV news in recent days carried the upbeat news of the US’s First Family-elect carefully choosing a new school for their two girls. The Obamas are moving the girls from one private school to another, from the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School to Washington’s Sidwell Friends School. It is a touching story of concerned parents working to identify which educational setting will best serve the needs of their children.
What a natural, human scene: parents, who have the ultimate responsibility for raising their children and who know them most intimately, making the choice for their best educational environment. The tragedy (a word I have selected carefully) is that the reality of such a choice is, de facto, denied to the great bulk of America parents.
The Obamas are just the latest in a long line of US politicians who mouth bromides, such as, “Our children our this nation’s most valuable natural resources,” and then support policies that ensure this natural resource remains “undeveloped.” While mouthing their devotion to the quality education of the nation’s children, our leaders are being handed huge bribes (AKA campaign contributions) to ensure that the great majority of our children continue to be trapped in failing public schools.
The recent, seemingly endless, political campaign was filled with talk about change, change in the conduct of the war, change in our health care system and even some rather vague and airy talk about change in education. And certainly the American public… right, left, and center… is in the mood for change.
We are told, though, that the economy is the first and foremost change target. And the strategy is bailout. Bailout is reported to be the mechanism for change. Bailout is the solution. Everyone seems to be lining up for a bailout. First at the bailout trough came the banks, but right behind them are the US automakers, followed by several states, a few cities, the credit card industry, the airlines, and the universities. (Personally, I have been frantically trying to find the end of bailout line, but I’m warned that our Treasury will run out of cash long before find the line.)
However, change can come to our elementary and secondary schools without a cash bailout. For real change we needed an intellectual bailout, a fresh set of ideas to correct the errors of the past and get our school back on track. Let me suggest two such changes.
The reality of public education
The first change is to get rid of the deceptive word “public”, as in “public education”. “Public” means “devoted to the general or nation’s welfare.” Right now 88 percent of the nation’s 50 million children are in the state-supported school system and receive 99.9 percent of the federal, state and local tax monies. The welfare of the other 12 percent is, if anything, hindered by the state. The great majority of the parents of this 12 percent of unsupported students have to dig deep into their paychecks to buy the education they believe necessary for their children.
The nasty, political fact is that “public schools” exist primarily for the benefit of teachers unions and their membership. While other countries with comparatively excellent schools have been able to support all students, our leaders aren’t seriously interested in this issue. Like a low grade toothache, you stop noticing it after a while. On the other hand, those intoxicating dollars keep flooding in to our politicians from the teachers unions. The use of the word “public” is just a ruse to keep monies and restrictive rules in the hands of the state schools. A just and intelligent state, particularly at a time when the cost of education are so high, should be supporting all children.
Are parents too dumb to choose schools for their kids?
The second change is a bailout from the idea that bureaucrats, whether federal, state or local, know what is a good education for a particular child. Or said another way, that parents are too dumb or too unconcerned to make a sensible choice of schools for their children. Instead, we must leave it to the nanny state and our current educational experts who have created our embarrassingly failing schools.
The fundamental educational question has been and always will be, “What is most worth knowing?” What should children being learning? What will they need to become successful and fulfilled individuals? Besides the questionable anomaly that the state can answer this better than parents, there is a deeper question: Should the State dictate the formal intellectual training of a child from age 4 to 17 or 18? The state, like any organization, business or organism, is primarily concerned with perpetuating itself. That is natural and the way of the world. But is it right?
The state educational systems in every country with which I am familiar spends an inordinate amount of the students’ time learning about (being propagandized?) about itself and very little effort goes into teaching about other governmental and political ways to organize human activity. Again, at a certain level this makes sense, but recent history can document several instances, such as Nazi Germany and Communist North Korea, where the state’s educational system did not promote the human good.
While the analog to the Nazi and Communist educational system may seem over-the-top, it doesn’t appear that way to the many parents of the now two million children who are being homeschooled. These parents see a public school system that has aggressively reject their Judeo-Christian values and replaced them with palette of secularist values from anti-business environmentalism to full-throated acceptance of all “lifestyles,” living arrangements and sexual practices. To be opposed to this educational (read: political) agenda is to be tarred with that worst of all educational epithets: intolerance.
Hoping for real While it is heartwarming to see the First Family-elect carefully deciding about the proper setting for their daughters, it turns sour in the mouth when you draw back from this picture. Drawing back we see a city of parents forced by the law and economic realities to send their children to arguably the worst schools in North America. We see a city controlled by federal politicians who themselves won’t consider for a nanosecond sending their own children to the city’s public schools. We see some 60,000 students trapped in a corrupting environment and one which is systematically dooming their chances of living productive, successful lives.
Real change will not come until the public school’s monopoly is broken and educational decision-making is firmly in the hands of individual parents. Choice needs to be the new change in education. A primary justification for the current enthusiasm for bailouts is that this bank or that automotive company is “too big to fail”. That shouldn’t stop an educational bailout. Our big, bloated public school system is already failing.
Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at
Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20
books. He has appeared recently on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning
America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking
on character education. He can be reached at