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Got Choices?


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Bringing Choices to Education

Few areas of our public dialog are more hotly debated than the subject of education. Why is that? Why do we fight so much over what will be taught, how it will be funded, and where our children will attend?

More importantly, how is it we have relegated this sacred responsibility to the arena of partisan politics? This is not some highway funding project or industrial subsidy. These are our children—our most treasured and precious resource. Are we really thinking clearly when we allow their teaching and mentoring to be determined by a battle between political parties?

Not only is government actively involved in controlling and managing our system of education, but its influence over the process seems to be steadily increasing—particularly when we consider the degree to which the federal government is now involved.

When thinking about the early days of American education, we sometimes imagine a quaint school house in a rural or agricultural setting. We may think of a community organizing together to raise the funding to hire a teacher and then families donating time and resources to erect a one-room school house so their children can receive a basic education. In such humble circumstances, we might expect children of different ages to meet together in a single room where they would be taught in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Certainly this archetypical image does not fairly represent all early circumstances throughout the country—particularly in areas of more dense population. And certainly we don’t want to glamorize the past as being better in every way than our present conditions. But there are still some valuable observations we can make by comparing our past to the present.

First, we should be grateful for all the good progress that has been made in education. The methods and information available today, even in primary education levels, are incredibly vast compared to what our progenitors enjoyed. Yet still, perhaps a few important values may have been lost through the process of our evolution.

It is clear that over time, the American education system has become more and more centralized. Whereas individual schools and communities used to exercise a much greater degree of control over curricula, staffing and methods, today, much of what is taught in individual schools is mandated from above. With the formation of local school boards, many of the responsibilities previously handled by a teacher or a principal began to become centralized at the district level. In more recent decades, much of the power of the local school boards has increasingly been moved further up to the level of state school boards. Today, state departments of education and their governing boards are setting state-wide curriculum standards, establishing standards for graduation, and deciding what type of qualifications are necessary in order to be employed as a teacher in the system.

Not wanting to be left out of power, state legislatures also flex their muscles, passing legislation to control access to funding, determining the powers of state and local school boards, and setting other criteria and standards as they may see fit. In recent years we have seen efforts to further consolidate a degree of control at the federal level. Prior to 1980, the US government did not even have a department of education. Yet today, it controls tens of billions of dollars in grants and operating budget to assert control and influence over the way education is conducted throughout the various states.

If we look back into our history, certainly education has often struggled with a variety of challenges. At times we have had undesirable rates of truancy or illiteracy. Certainly the results of a school education will have varied widely from state to state or even from one school to another. The quality of instruction received by an individual student might have been more dependent upon the skill and qualifications of the teacher or administrator she ended up with. The education any particular child received might be excellent, poor, or somewhere in between. It might also have been highly dependent upon where the student lived or how affluent was that community.

As we have noted, the natural impulse when trying to solve social problems is often to push responsibility up to higher levels of government. But it is important to ask ourselves whether centralization of control has really addressed these problems to our satisfaction? In our inner cities for example, truancy and illiteracy are often still out of control. While we have many outstanding schools and teachers, we also have some areas that are totally failing to produce the kind of results we expect and hope for. Unfortunately, a lot still depends on where you live. Live in a wealthy neighborhood and you are much more likely to get a better education. Live in a poor area of town and your results are often not as good.

In other words, the ways we manage education have changed significantly. More decisions are now made at higher levels of regulatory power, and fewer options are left for parents, teachers and schools to determine. But too many of the results have not improved in the ways we would like. We still have too many failing schools. And this means we are failing to provide many students with the opportunities they deserve.

So is there a solution?

Some will tell you we just need to spend more money. If only we would raise taxes and commit all the increase to education, perhaps then things would be better. Yet much of the performance data we have available do not show a clear correlation between quality of outcome and money spent. In fact, some data may indicate the opposite: sometimes, the more we spend, the worse off things can become.

Many of our worst performing schools exist in areas where the highest amounts are being spent. And many of our best schools are getting by on much less. Certainly adequate funding is important to getting what we want out of education. But clearly, it is not the most important thing.

It is also important to consider what actually constitutes a “good education?” What should we really be trying to accomplish? And why? What is the end goal of educating our children and how can we most effectively measure success?

Like almost every other question about values, it depends on who you ask. People are likely to disagree about what should be taught and how we should expect kids to be changed by the process. Perhaps this is the principal reason why education has become so polarized and so politically charged. Different people have the habit of developing their own opinions about practically everything. And education is no exception.

Some people think the purpose of education is to make our kids smarter and more productive than the kids of other nations. They refer to a “competitive global marketplace” and note that kids won’t be able to get jobs unless they are more proficient at math and computers than their foreign counterparts.

Other people argue, the economy is of paramount importance and without well educated workers, we will not be able to grow our national production at a sufficient rate. Some feel the most important thing is for our kids to learn proper skills of socialization and working with other people. Others hope they will advance in team sports such as football or basketball and perhaps even have an opportunity for a professional athletic career.

Some parents might just want their kids to have happy and fulfilling lives and they hope a formal education will enhance their chances for accomplishing that.

The puzzling thing is, in light of the broad array of differing expectations about what education is supposed to accomplish, in large part, we only have one version of the product available. Other than a small supply of relatively expensive private schools, the only real option available to most parents is attendance at the local public school, owned, managed and operated by the federal, state and local government. And due to the increasing degree to which the programs available in these schools is decided by the highly partisan political process, it is subject to the limitations of democracy we have already discussed. A 51% majority gets to decide how things will be done. And the remaining minority just has to go along with it even if they would prefer something entirely different.

So is there some important reason why we couldn’t all just get exactly the education we want? Is that too revolutionary a concept? Do we all really have to do it exactly the same way as each other? We get to choose what we will wear and what we will eat. We get to choose whether to belong to a church and how we will believe and answer big questions. We get to choose where we will live and how we will produce the resources needed to sustain our lives. Primarily due to recent technological progress, we now have an unprecedented range of options to choose from. So why don’t we get to choose what kind of education we can access for our kids?

Admittedly, there could be some rare cases where irresponsible parents might choose something that is not the very best thing for their kids. But that is clearly the exception. Most parents care deeply about their kids and will make every effort to do what they believe is in their best interest.

We don’t relieve all parents of the responsibility for feeding and clothing their own children just because a small minority might abuse that responsibility. So why do we have to create a single, uniform education system and force all kids through it regardless of what individual parents or children might want for themselves?

What if some people want more of a liberal arts education? What if they want something more oriented more toward athletics? What if they want to home school? Or what if they prefer a more technical track? What if they want to attend a religious school or a school run by the local community? Can’t we still allow families that much freedom in America? Or do we have to select a single way and make everyone conform to it?

In recent decades there has been a great deal of public discourse about a quality called “diversity.” Diversity describes the concept that people come in a wide range of different varieties. We have hair, eyes and skin of different colors and we come in all different shapes and sizes. But that is just what is on the outside. Inside, we have all different kinds of personalities too. Some of us are analytical, some are artistic. Some are carefree and others are more meticulous. Some of us tend toward compassion and others are more interested in justice and equity.

This variety is what constitutes our diversity. And we often claim: Our diversity is our strength. So it must be a good thing, right?

Well, if diversity is such a good thing, then why do we spend so much time trying to stamp it out? Perhaps we say it is good but we really don’t believe it. Or maybe we know it is good, but we just enjoy the sense of control that comes from holding everyone to a single, uniform standard. Maybe we like the concept of diversity, but we really don’t understand it well enough to respect it in our everyday practice.

Diversity is clearly a good thing in many ways. For example, groups of people and animals tend to be healthier and more resilient to change when there is a broad genetic diversity in their population. But perhaps it is even more important in the context of free will and the exercise of choice by the individual.

When individual people are allowed the freedom to live according to the dictates of their own conscience and make choices according to the broad range of options before them, the result is just as broad a diversity of achievements. Since it is impossible to get everyone to agree on the purpose of our existence, why then would we think we can all agree on what we should learn, what we should become or what constitutes a good and happy life? True diversity means allowing our individual choices to determine what we will become. It means allowing people to do what they think is best for themselves. And the ultimate value of those choices will be measured by the joy and satisfaction they derive from their own existence and the way in which they are able to pursue their own happiness and fulfillment.

Once we understand the true nature of diversity, we see that the very idea of government regulation is entirely contrary to how diversity works. “Regulation,” or the act of making regular, or the same, is what government does best. Ultimately, government has only the power to enact and enforce laws. It doesn’t produce anything and it doesn’t have compassion or feelings. All it can do is make laws that limit how people can live their lives. And the act of enforcement, or the use of force in ensuring compliance to those laws, is an attempt to compel everyone to live the same way. That is all government can do because that is the extent of its power. So if diversity is our strength, and regulation reduces diversity, then why do we create more and more regulation—particularly in the field of education?

Some will suggest we might enhance diversity through well-crafted legislation. But enacting a law for the purpose of enforcing diversity is a contradiction in terms. Let’s say you like the diversity that results from a student being able to learn about a number of different religions in school. So you pass a law that every student has to learn about the top 10 religions of the world. Now every school in the country has essentially the same program where it comes to the study of religion. Have you just made things more or less diverse?

True diversity means some schools might teach about only one religion and others might teach about the top 10. Some schools might not teach about religion at all but may focus only on a scientific approach. The only way government can truly foster diversity in education is to repeal a number of existing regulations, and resist the urge to create new ones. It can just do less regulating and less enforcing. Then true diversity will happen automatically and all by itself as a consequence of the nature of mankind and the laws of economics.

This is not to say that education should not be regulated in any way. Of course some types of regulation are necessary and even desirable. But regulation within the context of our partisan political process is rarely a desirable outcome. Much of the necessary regulation can be done entirely outside the context of government. And when government does need to get involved, it is best that it be done at lower, or more local levels where it can be more readily influenced by the input and concerns of parents and families.
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