This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on August 19, 2017.
American education is at a crossroads. With per pupil spending at record highs, and educational attainment stagnant at best, our return on investment has never been worse. Understanding that reality is undoubtedly the context for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ persisting intention to introduce education choice.
DeVos’ plans are fitting. Every generation or so, reformers grapple with the declining quality of education, and succeed in making some improvements. Too often, those changes merely nibble around the edges, as the entrenched interests of teachers’ unions, administrator associations, and school boards prevent large-scale reform.
Consequently, about once per century — so just twice in American history — there is a movement to refashion the very notion of education in America. The first of these, in the early 1800s, culminated in what we now recognize as our public education system. To this day, Americans should be proud of a system that, in spite of a deeply heterogeneous population, both taught the basics and fostered a unifying vision of the common good.
Unfortunately, the opposite has been true for too long. The second of these “education revolutions,” motivated by the work of John Dewey and William James, has laid the foundation for the current system – a system in which truth is relative, and in which education’s purpose, therefore, is not to cultivate an understanding of the “permanent things,” but to make each student the best, most predictable, well-trained cog in a machine.
It’s no coincidence that American students have steadily become less religious, less patriotic, and less entrepreneurial: that’s the goal of the Dewey-James-educrat regime.
Consequently, the time has come for the third American education revolution, one in which families have true freedom—and the means to exercise it—in education.
Several principles should guide this reform.
The most important is that families be put back in charge of their children’s education. The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of government control that many teachers and school administrators believe they, not families, know what’s best for children. But this should not surprise us, as nearly a century of Dewey-James philosophy has undermined the family as an important social—and civic—institution.
Second, we must explicitly re-commit to the belief that our education policy focus on children, not “systems.” Too much of the rhetoric from opponents focuses on perpetuating the education bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, as the bureaucracy has increased, educational attainment has decreased—proving the truth of Ronald Reagan’s maxim that “Government doesn’t solve problems; it subsidizes them.”
Third, states, not the federal government, must take the lead in education. This is not only a proper understanding of federalism, but also far more efficient. With too few education dollars actually being spent on instruction, why do we continue to enlarge the federal education bureaucracy?
State policymakers, however, have to grapple with the same dynamics: defenders of the status quo want to maintain their power. Reformers would be wise, therefore, to emphasize that education funding follows the child; it’s not allocated to keep failing schools open, to keep underperforming teachers and administrators employed, or to build fancy buildings. As Secretary DeVos remarked this spring, “we must shift the paradigm to think of education funding as investments made in individual children, not in institutions or buildings.”
Finally, we must remember—including those of us who are choice proponents—that our educators need more freedom as well. In our current, overly-bureaucratized regime, scores of regulations and testing get in the way of our teachers doing what they desire to do: simply teach kids. What an opportunity we have to reject the altar of bureaucracy and help children, parents, and teachers!
To do so, however, will require a comprehensive solution—one that empowers families to find the best educational option for their children; one that frees teachers to teach; one that untethers administrators from endless regulations; and one, most importantly, that provides to children the opportunity to pursue the American Dream.
Right now, we are failing to fulfill that promise. Only by embracing a uniquely American concept—setting education free—can we truly resolve that problem.