Recently Forbes ran a series, “What’s Your Single Best Idea For Reforming K-12 Education?” Ideas are great and important, but in reality it was the intellectual equivalent of “What would you do if you won the lottery?” It’s fun to discuss and think about, but meaningless. Why?
The state of Tennessee has almost one million (933,703) students in PK – 12 and 1736 schools. There is no single idea (fix) that will improve the education for one million culturally, financially, regionally, religiously, intellectually, physically, academically motivated, unique and diverse students. Are we saying we need one million individual schools to meet the needs of one million individual students? No; of course not. That would be silly.
Yet, we ask why no one considers the other extreme, our current system, silly; one school system for one million culturally, financially, regionally, religiously, intellectually, physically, academically motivated, unique and diverse students. “But,” says the gentle reader, “we have over 1700 different schools.” The locations and names of Tennessee’s schools may be different, but for all intents and purposes they are the same. They must all follow the same federal and state laws, rules and regulations using the same model. Add on top of that each school &/or district must abide by rules in union contracts and regulations set by the school board for that district.
We have not failed to provide a quality education for four plus generations because we don’t know what to do, how to do it or what works. We know – but what works can be very different for different groups of children. The roadblock to giving all of our children the education they need and deserve is – power – and until parents demand that power be given to them we are going to continue failing to educate and prepare our children. Despite the fact parents have the most vested interests in ensuring their child’s educational needs are met and they know the needs and abilities of their child better than the most educated “expert” at the federal, state or district level, those who currently have the power sacrifice children at the altar of their power.
So who currently has the power? Federal politicians, state politicians, district school board politicians, unions, teachers, principals and other administrators, and those who benefit from the billions of dollars in education spending. For example:
- Obama, Democrats and Republicans understand federal power over education has resulted in flat results despite trillions in spending; yet instead of giving control back to states they continue to debate, ad nauseam, how to “tweak” federal control laws. It helps them appear to be engaged in reform while retaining their power.
- State leadership, governors and legislators, have been trying to wrestle power away from the federal government, while expanding their own. For example, Governor Haslam isn’t working to empower Tennessee’s parents he is trading one set of federal laws for Obama’s “laws” with a NCLB waiver and encouraging Common Core standards which will at best legislate mediocrity and at worse further hamstring innovation and flexibility to meet the needs of so many unique children.
- At the school board level we see board members repeatedly protecting the system at the cost of children’s educational needs, despite boards having been elected by voters to provide for and protect the children (NOT the system) of their district and having mission statements that profess as much.
- We have had, probably hundreds, of media stories of union leadership bemoaning the loss of their monopoly power/control over the teachers of Tennessee; spinning it as an attack on teachers in their desperation to convince members that unions are still relevant and retain power.
- Some teachers resent the perceived loss of power by being held accountable through test scores and being evaluated accordingly.
By attaching funding to the child instead of the district parents would be empowered with the responsibility to choose the proper education for their child, while simultaneously cutting out all the “middle men” (politicians, etc.) who have for decades given more thought to the wants of the “grown-ups” than the very real needs of the children. Further, the same market forces that brought us from land lines to pocket size smart phones, Edsels to electric and flex fuel cars, room size computers to laptops would profoundly expand educational options and innovations as well.
There are different ways to achieve parental empowerment from vouchers to tax credit scholarship programs. We in Tennessee can and should look to examples in other state and use the systems and methods that would best serve Tennesseans while adding or tweaking as we see fit. There are many, many examples of school choice and free market education systems in the United States and world-wide to learn from.
Power is never given up freely. Parents must demand of candidates and politicians the right to control their children’s education – at every level of elections – from local school board elections to presidential elections. Until parents wrangle power from politicians reform efforts will equate to merely shuffling chairs around the deck. Our economy becomes increasingly global and technical daily. Mediocrity will increasingly fail to be “enough” for our children to “get by.”