Robert A. Teegarden's Blog

February 10, 2010

The Choices in Education: Reflections on the Rhetoric of Reform

Filed under: Uncategorized — by Robert @ 4:44 pm
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The Choices in Education: Reflections on the Rhetoric of Reform

 In his first State of the Union address, President Obama had the following to say with regard to education:

Fourth, we need to invest in the skills and education of our people. 

Who’s the “we” that needs to invest?  Clearly, for Mr. Obama “we” is the federal government. He goes on to laud the $4.35 billion “invest(ment) in reform.” The problems with this threat of funding is that it removes the reform from the local to the national level; it undermines subsidy, one of the (former) guiding principles in America (and especially in schooling)—that government closest to the people governs best.  It sets up a dialectic between the haves and the have-nots and pits one sector against another: it’s a Race to the Top.  “We” should be the people—parents of children who are of school age.  “We” used to be before schooling got organized for other purposes.

And who are “our people” in the area of schooling in America. If the Race to the Top is any indicator, the current administration excludes kids in private schools and home schools from “our people.”  Private school and home school parents are part of the “public” on April 15th.  The federal government should represent all of the “public”, not just those who attend government schools.  After all, these are not federal government schools; they are state government schools. 

I wonder.  When Mr. Obama says we should invest in the “skills… of our people”, is this the first slight indicator that he might realize that college is not for all?  That not all students are college-bound?  That to suggest that is only to reduce the once proud collegiate standards to the least common denominator? I wonder.

This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. 

I’m not sure the “stalemate” was “broken through” as much as it was trampled once again with the threat of funding: $4.35 billion with the promise of $4 billion more.

The idea here is simple:  instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. 

If that’s true, then why did the administration stand by, no, obfuscate the successes of the OSP program in Washington, let alone ignore its own measures of that program’s success?  Either these kids aren’t part of the “we” or the “success” of this program is not part of the quo of whose status he wishes to protect.  How can that be?  There are ten studies that unequivocally demonstrate that school choice works.  Then why are they these kids being punished?  Why are these kids being forced to attend failing schools that “steal the future of too many young Americans?”

Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities.

But that’s exactly what they’ve funded:  the status quo.  Private schools weren’t included, only the union schools.  And since some states have said they will not compete because of the political strings attached, Obama now suggests that the next go-round for federal funding will allow school districts to apply, by-passing that status quo.

In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education.  In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than their potential. 

This is so true in any century.  But education is what one does to self, it’s what one achieves in a lifetime of experience and work.  Schooling is only a small part of that education.  The problem with this federal proposal, like most, is that the government is trying to guarantee outcomes when it should be in the business of guaranteeing opportunities.  Instead of funding schooling, the government should be funding education.  Instead of funding institutions, the government should be funding people. Then the people will choose the institutions that succeed and meet their educational needs.

When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all fifty states.  

If that’s true, then I’m afraid that all of the above will become enshrined in a law that was designed exactly to break the cycle of poverty that consumes so many Americans.  If the Race to the Top is used as the template for the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I’m afraid that some of our citizens will be left out—kids who are not schooled in the government institutions. 

… Instead, let’s take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants

Now here’s an interesting idea. Remove the hierarchical bureaucracy and return the funding directly to parents in the form of a tax credit.  But it, too, has a shortfall.  What about the kids who don’t attend four years of college?  How about the students who work to obtain an A.B.? Or technical training?  What about a tax credit for opportunities in post-secondary schooling opportunities instead? 

It all comes down to what the government does or should guarantee: outcomes or opportunities.  When one rewards a competition with winners and losers, our government is trying to guarantee outcomes.  One has to ask what is the proper role of government in education?  Is it coerced attendance in schools that “steal the future of too many young Americans?” Or should it reach past requiring to inspiring?

If a government closest to the people governs best, then perhaps the best funding cycle might be simply to return these tax dollars to the various states and encourage them to grapple with the demonstrable signs of success right in front of them; they can then make a choice. The funding should be returned to the people.



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