As we head into an election year, it’s decision-making time for conservatives in regard to education policy in America. While not, on its own, one of the big three – economy and jobs, healthcare and smaller government – education is intertwined in two of those key issues and promises to be an area of contention.
The increasingly volatile clash between school choice advocates and the union-backed Left is leaving a decreasing amount of gray area for those who support public education but oppose too much government involvement in their schools. This is a critical juncture and much will be decided on this front in the next two elections cycles.
A large conservative faction has waged staunch opposition to the new Common Core criteria and rightly so. Loss of classroom autonomy, unattainable and unenforceable achievement standards, and controversial curriculum requirements establish worthy ground for justified resistance. The key, of course, is to not just assail the current standards but to offer realistic alternatives, something House Majority Leader Eric Cantor spoke to in a recent Politico article:
Long an advocate of school choice, Cantor used a speech at the Brookings Institution to vow that Republicans would defend what he called an “education revolution” that has shifted power away from traditional public schools and put it in the hands of parents. Many states now allow parents to get tax-funded vouchers to send their children to private or parochial schools or chose from an array of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. “Right now, school choice is under attack,” Cantor said. “It is up to us in this room and our allies across the nation to work for and fight for the families and students who will suffer the consequences if school choice is taken away.”
But the compelling conflict lies deeper than the specific Common Core legislation, or No Child Left Behind before it, or Clinton’s reforms before that. While somewhat unique in execution and prescribed goals, the resulting function of each has been to increase the government’s reach into the classrooms and textbooks of America’s public education system. At this, most conservatives balk and who can blame them?
While K-12 public (read: tax-supported) education options have been prevalent in America since George Washington and the boys won the Revolutionary War, the creation of the Department of Education in 1953 (though under a different name at the time) marked the point of diminishing returns. The quality of education in America’s public schools has managed to steadily decline, by most any measurable metric, despite billions of federal and state dollars and mountains of regulations and standardized requirements being thrown at it over the last 60 years. Studies upon studies have shown that American students are only middling internationally, and they’re becoming less competitive with every passing year.
To put it succinctly, American public education has jumped the shark.
“Public” education is a system in which society at-large has a vested interest. Unfortunately, we’ve consented to our tax dollars and millions of our children participating in a system that is progressively unable to provide an adequate return on this investment.
However, this is the system in place at present, and if public schools are to play a prominent role in forming American thought, industry, and national leaders, it stands to reason that students enrolled in the public education system should expect the same standards and delivery of educational opportunity and achievement regardless of geographical location.
Warts and all (covered in them, really), this is what programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core strive to do, and therein lies the problem for conservatives and reasonably minded education wonks: the State has failed at delivering a quality education product, but the population hasn’t yet rejected it in full. It’s almost ironic that advancements in education for our children will have to come by first educating their parents about clear and practical options.
From Politico, For Right, Common Core Fight Prelude to Bigger Agenda, last week:
The anti-Common Core movement so far has been about saying “no” to the standards, “but at some point soon, we’ll have to define what ‘yes’ is — and school choice is a perfect ‘yes’ for people to galvanize around,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank.
Millions of families clamor to get their children into private and charter schools each year – millions more than capacity allows. Over two million students already flood charter schools; private schools have to reject more students than they can accept; and homeschooling has experienced a sharp rise in the past decade. The rush to abandon public schools given the opportunity demonstrates a major desire for better options. Even with far too much government involvement in and restrictions on the private education sector, the market is responding to demand and providing these better options in greater numbers than ever before.
There is beauty in this. As in all things, competition breeds success. Private schools have more incentive to perform well than do public schools. The former’s enrollment numbers depend on families wanting what they have to offer, the latter’s depend on where families happen to live.
Programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core, defensible in their premise but impossibly orchestrated by an incompetent State, merely highlight the realization that teachers’ unions and apathetic parents are the primary causes of American educational decline, not a lack of federal funds or regulations.
As a semi-uniform framework is the prevailing policy for public schools across the nation, it seems the consistent conservative position should now be to oppose the idea of public education conceptually. How are we to believe that the ends of most everything – economic markets, innovation incentive, the preservation of essential freedoms, personal growth – are better met through private means, yet make an exception for an arena as vital as education?
Surely conservatives cannot hold that the best way to enable an ideal education environment for the maximum number of American youth is through a system run by a government that performs so poorly at everything else.
But as long as politicians can win votes by pretending anti-private school positions equate to pro-education positions, education in America will continue its downward spiral.
Current public education is an idea whose time has worn out its welcome, is increasingly being rendered obsolete and even detrimental by the competition and superior product of private and charter education. However, it is impractical to expect all of our nation’s children to obtain some reasonable education without an effective and workable public system.
Therein lies the conundrum in the very black-and-white issue of Common Core versus school choice, as is frequently so, the solution will rest in the gray area in between. The side that can advocate for their position while establishing demonstrative and meaningful solutions born of the current system will be political victors, while the children will simply be winners as they should.