Education in America Today
Michelle Easton | 2002/09/13
On February 20 of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Taylor vs. Simmons-Harris, commonly called the Cleveland voucher case. A small African-American child, one of hundred who rallied before the Supreme Court that day, held a sign that best expressed the argument before the Court: “Who died and left the government my parents?”
Freedom-loving Americans have high hopes that this will be a landmark decision--more sweeping than Pierce vs. Society of Sisters in 1925 and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; that the Court will unequivocally restore to families the right to determine the education of their children, the right that has been systematically stolen over the past 150 years.
The Founding Fathers had it right with the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
Education was a power initially delegated to the people. Thomas Jefferson introduced a proposal in the Virginia State legislature in 1779 to establish three years of tax-supported elementary schooling, but the proposal failed. For the first 175 years, parents shaped the education of their children largely free of government influence.
Then, in 1826, Massachusetts enacted a law requiring towns to establish school committees, organize schools under a single authority, and raise taxes for their support. And power struggles between parents and educationists began. An article in the Massachusetts Teacher in 1851 complained, “In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children...the children must be gathered up and forced into school.”
At about the same time that the National Education Association was formed, 1857, states began enacting compulsory public school attendance laws--a process that was completed by 1918. Indeed, “Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century,” writes historian Andrew Coulson, “education reformers, bureaucrats, and teachers' organizations pushed to increase their powers” over children and schooling. The Wisconsin Teachers' Association went so far as to assert that “children are the property of the state,” an opinion that echoed many sister groups.
These educationists wanted nothing less than a total monopoly over the formal intellectual training of children, and they almost got it. Oregon revised its compulsory school law to make it illegal to send a child to a nonpublic school; however, in 1925 (Pierce v. Society of Sisters), the Court struck down Oregon's law, writing:
"The fundamental theory upon which all governments in the Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligation."
Unrepentant, and recognizing that a virtual monopoly could still be achieved, NEA encouraged its members in 1932 to become societal change agents, to “fashion the curriculum and procedures of the school” and “influence the social attitudes, ideals, and behavior of the coming generation.”
They have never looked back.
The NEA was the driving force behind the creation of the federal Department of Education in 1979, one giant step toward government's centralization of power and influence in education.
For a total of seven years straddling the eighties and nineties, I was an “ed fed,” starting with work for President Reagan at the federal Department of Education in 1981 in an attempt to carry out his campaign pledge to abolish the department, which was justified then and now. Even the Washington Post, by no means a Reagan ally, acknowledged in a 1994 editorial: “There is a lot right about considering whether certain Cabinet departments deserve to be abolished. America's schools are not noticeably better because a Department of Education was created.”
The NEA and its state affiliates have been the strongest opponents of academic standards, student testing, and public school accountability.
Nearly twenty years ago President Reagan's secretary of education Bill Bennett called the NEA union the most powerful obstacle to improving education in America. He's right. From its 1918 “Cardinal Principles” to the 1940s “Life Adjustment” curriculum and the 1960s “open schooling,” the NEA has consistently shown a disdain for teaching traditional academic subjects such as English, Math, and History, and a propensity for anti-intellectual curricula on the order of “Satisfactory Social Relationships,” “Adjustment to Occupation,” and “Development of Meaning for Life.”
Luce Policy Institute Education director Lil Tuttle and I witnessed this first hand in the 1990s when we served as vice-president and president of the Virginia State Board of Education. We oversaw the development of rigorous knowledge-based academic standards in English, math, science, and history, and the creation of standardized tests to assess academic achievement in grades 3, 5, 8, and at the end of high school courses. Accountability was applied equally to students and schools. After a phase-in period of ten years, students were required to “earn” the state's diploma by passing six high school level tests, and schools were required to “earn” the state's accreditation by maintaining an acceptable student pass-rate on the tests.
In countless public hearings throughout the state, parents and business people supported these reforms while Virginia Education Association members opposed them.
One Virginia state senator, who was also a public school administrator, lamented on the Senate floor, “Never have I seen so much attention given to student learning.” Imagine that!
The NEA and its affiliates have spent millions of dollars annually and devoted countless hours to elect candidates who support their educational philosophy. Their members have promoted radical environmental, energy, and disarmament policies for American society and self-indulgent self-esteem, anti-Western multiculturalism, and peer counseling for students.
The NEA's near-neurotic preoccupation with sex has produced mandatory sex education--twelve years of it in some states. I've often thought that since even the dullest child is capable of understanding the basics of sex in a thirty or forty-five minute conversation, proponents of twelve years of sex classes for children should be required to explain the rest of their agenda for what they cagily call “Family Life.”
Perhaps inevitably, the union's current initiative is to develop new “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Education” curricula for all public schools. When do we hit bottom?
How much better off children would be today if the NEA had chosen to channel its energies and power into true educational excellence--early reading skills for every child, along with a good grasp of math and science, and an objective historical literacy. There would have been no statistics showing that one in three children read at “below basic” levels. And we probably wouldn't be witnessing the explosion of home schooling and school choice initiatives.
The NEA has consistently opposed parental school choice in all forms.
The NEA fought--and lost--the battle against home schooling. Today it is the primary litigant in legal actions to stop various state school choice tuition tax credits and vouchers initiatives, even those like Florida's, designed only to rescue children from habitually failing public schools.
The union claims that it is merely protecting public schools, yet it opposes even charter schools, which are nothing more than public schools of choice.
In reality, the NEA has one objective: to protect its 150-year-old power structure. It represents the interests of its members very effectively, but children and families are not its members.
As a result, parents are at the forefront of the most important idea in education today--parental school choice.
Why, then, should school choice matter to those who don't have children in public schools?
1. Because it is the only way this nation is likely to achieve true reform and a true education renaissance--
A number of conservatives have asked me why I spend so much time on public schools when my own children have other options. But it is not that simple: 90 percent of America's children are in public schools, and most of the other 10 percent are in private schools that are only slightly better. Let me explain.
The Milwaukee public schools were among the worst in the nation before the Milwaukee tax-supported voucher program brought real reform ten years ago. Giving 65,000 children a choice had a dramatic effect on education. It meant that public, private, and faith-based schools had to compete for customers. As a result, all schools--public and private--improved. Competition through school choice benefitted everyone--children, schools, and society. It is a sterling example of the kind of educational renaissance this nation needs.
The reality of private school education in America is that, with some outstanding exceptions, most seek to stay just one notch or two ahead of public schools. Too many private schools follow the lead of the public schools in low achievement expectations, unproven teaching methodologies and curricula, and social engineering, such as sex ed, counseling, and mandatory community service.
In my family we have been equally disconcerted by what has gone on at both the private and public schools our three sons have attended. One high-priced private school bragged about its religious-based mission in its literature, but in actuality refused to allow the teaching of the Ten Commandments--even as a matter of pure knowledge, not faith-- because it might “offend someone.”
Likewise, when one son was in a public school sixth grade class, we were astounded when the Thanksgiving week assignment was to write an essay on what it felt like to be the turkey. Even on Thanksgiving they had to find a victim for the children to write about. (My son told me that the savvy sixth graders joked privately that if they were the turkey first thing they would do is get a lawyer.)
Also, recall that most private school teachers have been trained in the same public university schools of education that have trained public school teachers--the number of teachers trained at private schools of education is really quite small.
Well then, some say, what you need is to home school your children. I have tremendous respect for home schooling parents and think they are incredibly dedicated. But temperament and economics play a big role in home schooling. Much as we love our children, God didn't make us all schoolteachers. And the level of government taxation on families, in most cases, just doesn't allow one parent to stay home and home school.
Some may think that if public schools deteriorate further, private and home schooling will flourish and school choice will prevail. But waiting for public schools to self-destruct seems like an odd path to educational excellence.
2. Because the nation can't tolerate the high failure
rates that the public school is producing--
Twenty-five years from now the current generation will be assimilated into the economic and cultural life of the nation. How long can a nation survive if one in three young adults is functionally illiterate? Even if you home school or privately educate your children, what kind of a society will your children have to live in?
3. Because public school spending is out of control--
If higher spending produced higher student and school performance, achievement should have risen dramatically over the past three decades. Spending on U.S. public schools rose from $3,645 in 1970 to $6,434 in 1995 (in real 1997 dollars) yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores for seventeen-year-olds during the same period remained virtually unchanged. Math scores for the same age group were only slightly better.
The higher spending/higher achievement theory was put to its ultimate test in 1985 when a federal court ordered a complete overhaul of Kansas City's public schools. Missouri's fourteen-year $2 billion experiment brought fifteen new schools, fifty-six magnet schools, state-of-the-art vocational training centers, a world-class athletics department that offered fencing instruction by a former Olympic team coach, a 40 percent increase in teachers' salaries, and a student/teacher ration of 12 or 13 to 1.
When local taxpayers resisted tax increases to pay for the overhaul, the court ordered property tax rates doubled and imposed a 1.5 percent surcharge on wages earned in the city. Missouri was forced to spend 45 percent of its education funds on the 9 percent in Kansas City.
Nine years later when the federal court ended the project, white enrollment had declined, test scores hadn't improved, and the drop-out rate had increased to 60 percent. State accreditation of the Kansas City public schools was revoked in May 2000 when the schools failed to meet any of the eleven state educational performance measures.
Money can't buy real education improvement; only competition can bring that about.
4. Because the present system has become an elitist system--
Though one liberal Democrat, a wealthy businessman, with whom I worked while on the Virginia State Board of Education, and I agreed on little else, we found common ground in our desire to improve academic rigor in public schools. After our children had spent a few years in failing Richmond city schools, he had chosen to send them to elite private schools.
In due course, we had a very telling conversation on the issue of school choice. He said he gave the public schools ten more years before giving up on the government-run system and doing his best to privatize the entire thing. He added that he thought that many liberal businessmen agreed with him.
I suggested that waiting ten years would ill serve an entire generation of children and asked why not institute a tuition tax credit or voucher system now in order to give all children the options our children enjoyed.
“Oh, Michelle,” he said, “you don't really expect all children to have the same educational opportunities that our children have.”
This comment really gets to the crux of much of the resistance to school choice, and by liberals who should know better. It is the ultimate in elitism to believe that children of the more affluent and influential families should naturally have a better education than children of the masses.
5. Because school choice is ultimately about freedom--the right of each to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in his own terms--
In a nation where we cherish so many freedoms, we have denied ourselves the freedom to educate our own children. The extraordinary effects of freedom are apparent in our government and economy--in every aspect of our lives. We must apply this same freedom to the education of our children. Remember the little boy who stood before the U.S. Supreme Court in February holding the sign that read, Who died and left the government my parents?
In essence, we have. By being silent over decades while the public school monopoly demanded and received more power over the lives of children and a greater share of our wages, we have been accomplices to the death of freedom and the rise of government as surrogate parents.
Ultimately, the battle for school choice is a battle for freedom--perhaps the most important one of our time.