While few would argue that education is both the great equalizer and the single most influential program to benefit american society over the long run, many do argue on the merits and obstacles related to america's public education program.
In a recent Associated Press report, an America's Promise Alliance study found that 17 of the country's 50 largest cities had high school graduation rates lower than 50 percent, with the lowest graduation rates reported in Indianapolis, Cleveland and Detroit. The research also found that about half of all students attending public school systems in the nation's largest cities receive diplomas. Nationally, about 70 percent of U.S. students graduate on time with a regular diploma and about 1.2 million students drop out annually. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, founding chair of the alliance, illustrated the magnitude of the problem by stating "When more than 1 million students a year drop out of high school, it's more than a problem, it's a catastrophe."
American K - 12 public education is a pitiful program that primarily serves teachers' political interests at the expense of student interests and achievements. School administrators and elected officials serve teacher unions, teacher unions serve teachers and nobody serves parents and students. While there are a minority of teachers which go above and beyond their fiduciary duties in nurturing, educating and caring for students, the system itself is subject to the vested financial interests and demands of teacher unions. Educational performance metrics have succumbed to union pay and job standards well and above student progress and parent evaluations. The public education customer has wrongfully migrated from the student to the teacher.
The ultimate litmus test that demonstrates the failure of the public school system is the staggering number of parents who scrape together the funds necessary to send their kids to private schools over the public school systems which can be attended at no out of pocket expense.
If politicians want to make students and their parents the primary customers and beneficiaries of the public school system, and in fact fix the public school system, they need only give parents the option to enroll their children in private schools with the amount of funding given to the public school systems. By granting parents tax credits toward private schooling equivalent to the amount which the government spends per student in the public system, parents and students would become for the first time the beneficiaries of public education, and students would for the first time be able to attend the school most capable of maximizing their education.
The steady erosion of public education is the single greatest long term threat to America. Continuing the status quo will continue widening the achievement gap between classes of people as well as contribute to the steady loss in literacy, creative thinking, advanced education and global competitiveness. If a politician wants to truly become a public education advocate, he or she must recognize that protectionism is a losing strategy. Only when public education can compete and win against private education will it be truly successful.
To overhaul and reform public schools, offer a comprehensive alternative to the existing governance system.
Efforts to date to reform public education have been piecemeal and lacked any type of progressive sequence. Vouchers give some parents the financial resources to choose better schools but do not advise how public or private agencies should provide better schools. Charter schools reduce regulations on a few schools but leave the majority unaffected. Site-based management changes local decision-making but does nothing to relieve pressures from the central office, federal and state regulations, or union contracts. And "systemic" reforms--which align mandated and standardized tests with required curricula and prescriptive teacher certification methods, do not eliminate the political and contractual constraints that can make schools unresponsive to change. All these proposals leave intact the core of the existing system: a rigid top-down, rule-driven, bureaucracy that is resigned to governing schools by politically negotiated rules.
But there is a viable alternative: contracting. This alternative builds on the charter school movement but would extend the autonomy of charter schools to all schools. Under contracting, school boards would no longer directly manage schools. Instead, they would contract with independent organizations to operate them. Contractors might range from the staff and parents of currently successful schools to community groups or universities. If they failed to deliver, they would be replaced. The role of school boards would be transformed to evaluate proposals, manage contracts, and ensure that contractors deliver on their promises. This arrangement would reduce spending on school bureaucracies and direct the money to the schools themselves. Large school systems could not convert to this new governance structure overnight. Big-city school boards could subject this proposal to a pilot or hard first test by contracting out for operation of their poorest-performing schools.
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