This commentary was originally featured in the San Antonio Express-News on March 16, 2016.
Imagine being a parent in Washington, D.C., and learning the school’s measures of success mean nothing — that graduation rates weren’t merely fudged, they were manufactured. Many students graduated who had missed half the school year in unexcused absences. According to an internal investigation, fully one-third of students graduated improperly.
Obama-era education reforms in that school district were faked, and while politicians patted each other on the back, students suffered.
As parents, our brightest hopes are in our children. We want to ensure for them the opportunities we never had.
National Review magazine has a scathing report on Washington, D.C., schools.
The District of Columbia failed its families. But it will take more than reform to provide for them the future they seek for their children and grandchildren. It will take a re-envisioning of what education should be, and what education means.
But it’s not a new vision for education — as trendy and progressive as that sounds. Instead, it’s a very old vision, a vision held by one of this nation’s great educators: Booker T. Washington.
Many know Washington’s story; born a slave, he envied the schoolrooms he could only peer into as a child. When freedom came, he sought to educate himself by any means necessary. In 1872, he left home and walked hundreds of miles to the Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. He won a scholarship, and upon graduation, he became a teacher. He was the first leader of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama.
Washington’s philosophy of education was all-encompassing. He sought to educate the whole person. Alongside book-learning, he taught practical skills. Tuskegee students built the institute with their own hands. They manufactured the very mattresses upon which they slept. They grew their own food and even grew enough to sell their bounty.
Washington also taught his students to be upright and honorable in their ways.
Washington is a personal hero of mine; he valued education in the same way my own parents valued it, as they sacrificed to put me in a tough Catholic school in inner-city Atlanta when I was a boy. I learned the hard lessons, intellectual and practical and moral, that laid the foundation for my own success in life.
As Washington himself said, “The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do.”
I found that to be the case as I advanced, first in the military world and then in civilian life.
And that is why Washington’s life and his philosophy are the foundation for a new nationwide initiative by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which I recently discussed at an event in San Antonio. The Booker T. Washington Initiative seeks to find solutions to the problems that have robbed underserved communities of opportunity. We will work to ensure that families throughout America, no matter their ZIP code, can rely upon the twin pillars that Washington cited as the foundations of prosperity — education and entrepreneurship.
That means real choice in education, with power restored to the parents who will always make better decisions on their children’s behalf than bureaucrats. It means advocating entrepreneurship — rolling back onerous regulations that prevent Americans from pursuing their dreams.
There’s something else Washington believed in — second chances. So education must be offered to those in prison, to help ensure that when they’re released — as many will be — they shall be able to fully participate in the restoration and revitalization of their communities.
Washington believed in his students. He had faith that with the right education and opportunities, they could remake the world.
Through the Booker T. Washington Initiative, we can restore faith in education. Children haven’t changed since Washington’s time. We have. And not for the better. It’s time to restore Washington’s vision for education in U.S. schools.