Many of you are aware of the current battle for the future of education, the argument for school choice. There are two sides poised to wage an epic media war for the hearts and minds of the voters. On one side, you have unions, union interests, and quite frankly, union money outfitting the cannons of fear and marching with the cavalry of institution. On the other side you have concerned parents and the taxpayers smart enough to care. These citizens, wholly unfunded, and largely unorganized, are preparing to wade into the fray against seasoned veterans of successful past campaigns of misinformation, intimidation and outright deceit.
The battle lines are drawn, the standards raised, and the first volley has been loosed. On the radio, you will hear the union fear-mongering echoing through the theater of your mind.
“A voucher system threatens public education, and limits options. This will hurt teachers and hurt families and hurt our kids, and we’re proud to tell you.”
The analytical mind can’t help but scrutinize how exactly, in education and no other industry, competition reduces options, but there are many parents standing on the battlefield who have neither the time nor the interest to don the armor of skepticism and the shield of statistical fact. They buy the lie.
Our education system was once the envy of the world. We stood tall atop the mountain of greatness, but over thirty years ago, a chill wind from the mouth and mind of one James Carter sent us looking for shelter further down the mountainside. For over thirty years now, this top down management of education, this stifling bureaucracy, has pressed us further and further down the slopes of success and into the dreary plains of mediocrity where the US trails most developed nations in literacy, math and science. It is this system that prevents rapid adjustment to student needs, stifles the flexible development of curriculums, and prevents our great teachers from being justly rewarded.
So here we stand, parents and taxpayers alike. The time for watered-down, apologist commentary that says all teachers are great and all our teachers are doing their best with what they are given, must end. I don’t blame the teachers directly for Alaska’s abysmal education numbers, but the numbers are the numbers, and our system doesn’t need modest reform. Our education system needs radical improvement. At the recent AEDC forecast luncheon, the state of Alaska’s education system was recapped in a short video available here. The results speak for themselves.
I teach a two-day program sponsored by a local rotary club called Choices. In it, I speak to 7th grade classes about how their grade is really the turning point in their lives where actions and performance directly determine the number of doors that are open to them in life, both in college or in a non-academic vocation. I encourage them to take an hour or two per week to learn about the industry that supports their personal interest. Video gamers would be served to learn programming. Artists would be served to learn Photoshop. In one class several years ago at Colony Middle School, I spent half of the final day arguing with the union-protected, tenured teacher who kept vocally insisting most students would be best served to drop out at 16, get their G.E.D. and enter the workforce. After trying to respectfully disagree, I eventually disagreed in a substantially less respectful way, after which the class erupted in laughter and I was branded a hero. Later, when I was leaving the administration offices, I mentioned his attempted torpedo of the program to the staff and was amazed by the response; “we’re just kind of waiting for him to retire.”
A system this dysfunctional does not need some little reform, it needs to be overhauled.
When the power of the purse is placed with the parents, the education system will radically improve. It must, because now parents must make a choice, and choices must be weighed. I submit, when given a choice, even uninvolved parents who are the bane of most talented teachers, will try to make a good choice for their kids. Power to the parents means schools must appeal to them, must vie for their child’s interest, must demonstrate the ability to succeed, and most importantly, must listen to the feedback of their customers parents. Monopolies are outlawed for good reason, and we’ve suffered the pains of poor options long enough.
The unions loathe the notion of accountability and mediocre and uninspiring teachers fear it but for very different reasons. Great teachers however, embrace it. Great teachers know not everyone is cut out to educate and inspire, and they’re correct. Great teachers know the material is largely irrelevant. It is their interaction and presentation of the material that engages students, as each of us with fond memories of an amazing teacher can attest. I believe teachers deserve to be paid well when they educate well, and a good teacher understands power to the parents is a pay-raise in the works.
We must change our language to win. Choices don’t inspire people, dreams inspire people. I dream of an education system as varied and diverse as my options for footwear, where two computer-game-loving parents with a son who wants to spend his whole day playing Halo can enroll that boy in a school that is staffed with people who get excited about software and want to train the next generation of the world’s best coders. A school where two hippie soul-mates can enroll their animal-loving daughter into a school designed around a fully functional ecosystem where the latest in forestry, farming, and agriculture technology are innovated at the same time they are educated. Where two thespians who met in acting class can send their precocious kids to master the disciplines of poise, articulation, delivery and timing that will prepare them for a career on the stage. Imagine a system where Christian parents, or Muslim parents, or Hindu parents can send their children to a school that wraps a classical education into and around the foundations of their faith.
I dream of a teaching environment that aligns teachers with the subject they are qualified and excited to teach. I believe in a system that rewards teachers a cash-bonus for each student who performs above grade level, cumulative bonuses per category. With power to the parents, the negative consequences take care of themselves through natural market forces. We need only concern ourselves with the duty to reward excellence, handsomely.
All this is possible in time if we are victorious, but victory lies in the language.
This must not be a war between choice and public education, that language is pure foolishness. The public will continue to be educated, only at the behest of parents, and not political purchase. Educational unions and top-down bureaucracy are effectively dream thieves. Through their systems go the bulk of our youth, and the results are pitiful, measured not only by the poor literacy rates and abysmal math scores we witness today, but by the loss of each affected child’s American dream. That average student who straddled the line between his smarter peers and his lesser, whose chance to believe in himself and have the spark of imagination fanned into the flames of a bright future was instead, snuffed through the pure avarice of the NEA and the apathy of tenured teachers.
We can no longer allow the status quo to steal the futures of our middle-class children. Do not be seduced into framing the argument between choice and public education. Do not apologize, and stop worrying about people’s feelings. After all, these are our kids were talking about here.
Opponents of school choice are the dream thieves, we are the parents.
Power to the parents.