Written by John Owens, firstname.lastname@example.org Thursday, 29 August 2013 00:00
Recently, I have been on the radio talk-show circuit promoting my new book, which exposes the ugly realities of what passes for “school reform,”and how the current obsession with test scores and other data is playing a big part in destroying a public education system that once was the envy of the world.
Of course, much of talk radio takes an anti-government attitude on just about every subject (“Traffic lights? Why should the government have a monopoly on traffic lights?!”). So my plea for fixing — not dismantling — our public schools rarely is met with sympathy.
Here’s what I typically hear from the host:
“Shouldn’t parents have a choice where their kids go to school? Or should that only be a privilege of the rich? So that poor parents, too, can send their kids wherever they want, there should be a voucher system — the government gives parents the money that would have been spent on the kid in the public school, and the parents have free educational rein. As with everything else in which there’s a free market, these voucher-supported schools would compete and be far better than anything bureaucrats can cook up.”
My response: Isn’t it pretty to think so.
As a general rule, I agree that the government can do very little right and virtually nothing efficiently. But I do believe that here in America, our governments have, at least historically speaking, done a few things pretty well. Among them: waging war, operating traffic lights and providing public education. That our public school system has become so expensive, bureaucratic, corrupt, politically charged and prone to scapegoating can’t be denied.
But the same could be said about Nassau County, and I haven’t heard anyone who isn’t drinking suggest dissolving this layer of government and giving each of us vouchers for road repairs and parks. I believe that like Nassau, the American public school system can be saved and returned to sanity. First, we must get these notions of vouchers and other virtual wrecking balls out of the way.
Yes, there always have been private schools — for the rich as well as the religious. But the overwhelming majority of us are the products of public schools. And it is this shared experience that helps bind us as a nation. Today, our culture is so fragmented that anything holding us together is valuable. Touchstones of experience build tribes (just think of college fraternities/sororities, military service, Harley Davidson riders) — or at least help us share common values. To lose the link of public education would be a shame.
In addition, while vouchers seem to make some sense in theory, wherever they’ve been tried they’ve been a disaster. Louisiana, where vouchers are widely used, is quickly sinking into the educational bayou. Charter schools, which represent vouchers in a different form, haven’t lived up to the hype — nor to the educational efficacy of traditional public schools.
When the radio hosts talk about opening k-12 to free-market competition, I feel it’s important to point out that with the government footing the bill, it’s not quite a free market. Just look at what’s happened in the for-profit college business. With the federal government providing nearly 80 percent of the industry’s revenue in the way of student grants and loans, these outfits were once seen as money machines by Wall Street. The problems were astonishingly low graduation and job-placement rates. Meanwhile, profits and marketing expenses dwarfed instructional spending. Fortunately, investigations undertaken by Congress and state attorneys general have helped potential students wise up. As a result, stocks in this category have tanked.
And then I comment, “I’m not sure if that’s comeuppance or Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’ But I love it.”
Wouldn’t you know, suddenly we have to break for news, weather and traffic.
John Owens’ new book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education, is available at booksellers everywhere, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. There are Kindle and NOOK editions, too.