What to do with the time given to us?

Chester E. Finn Jr., distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Fordham Institute, authored what is in my opinion the K-12 commentary of the year thus far with Did public education have it coming?

 Finn’s piece was a reaction to Laura Meckler’s column in the Washington Post titled, “Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions.” The article, all too common in education journalism, focuses on the concerns of the suppliers of public education.

Alternatively, Finn asks the question: What might the situation look like if we focused on the consumers of public education? He writes:

The schools our kids attended were closed so long that students lost whole years of learning. Those from families with limited means lost even more. Those schools were closed far longer than they needed to be, apparently because the adults who work in them didn’t want (or were scared) to return, and those running them put their employees’ interests ahead of those of their students and parents. We watched the firemen and nurses and utility workers keep coming to work despite the pandemic. Why not the teachers?

Worse, the closed schools’ failure to supply satisfactory forms of remote instruction meant that millions of children forgot how to study, how to get along with other kids, how to relate to grown-ups outside their families. Idleness, lassitude, and frustration took a toll of their physical and mental health and made life extremely difficult for us parents and other caregivers, including messing up our own work lives.

Many of us had no choice but to quit our jobs. No wonder many of us took education into our own hands, seeking out other schools that managed to stay open, getting serious about homeschooling, hiring tutors when we could afford it, and teaming up with neighbors to create quasi-schools. Yes, we’re angry, furious even, and yes, our kids are upset and acting out.

And it didn’t get any better when we got them back into school only to discover that, instead of the Three R’s, our schools were obsessing over racial and political issues. No wonder we’re protesting at school board meetings. No wonder a bunch of politicians are using our unhappiness to get themselves elected. And it’s no help at all when folks in Washington seem more interested in sending money and coddling misbehavers than in whether our children are learning.

To all this, I say, YOMP!

Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, also turned in a thoughtful take on the Meckler piece, writing for Eduwonk.com, asking: Is the sky really falling? Rotherham makes a number of valid points, one of which I broadly agree with, that public education, at least in the role of being a source for adult employment, is not at any existential risk. Far from it in fact.

State constitutions still guarantee K-12 funding after all, and we have numerous examples of per-pupil funding increasing despite shrinking public school systems. Rotherham’s list of challenges, however, is lengthy, and these challenges all have worsened simultaneously. What’s more, some of the larger challenges didn’t make Andy’s list.

Based on international exams of academic achievement, we can say that before the pandemic, America’s public schools provided an unremarkable education to affluent kids at high costs. For the less-advantaged student, these schools provided a very low-quality education at high costs. Efforts to change this situation met with fierce resistance, and not only from unionized employee interests preferring the status-quo. Suburban complacency represented a separate challenge.

Post-pandemic, we find ourselves in an altered political scene. Suburban complacency is gone for the reasons cited by Finn. Black families are homeschooling like nobody’s business, as are others. District officials are gasping for air beneath piles of temporary federal dollars that they can’t quite figure out how to spend, while buses go without drivers, special needs students go without helpers, classrooms go without substitutes.

It’s not like these sorts of things go unnoticed; a growing number of families feel they no longer can rely upon school districts.

An unforeseen baby-bust broke out in 2007, and social distancing did not help matters. A school culture war has broken out and looks to rage on indefinitely. Ten thousand baby boomers continue to reach the age of 65 daily and will be competing for the public resources used to inflate per-pupil spending. The massive daily drip of such retirements apparently will be accompanied by background music featuring endless cultural conflict over schools.

But is the sky actually falling? No.

American K-12 is a complete bureaucratized and politicized mess with very real victims. What we should do with the time given to us is push forward to reshape American K-12 education with widely shared values: pluralism, liberalism, and tolerance. We need more effective and more cost-effective school models and methods of education.

Plodding bureaucracies overseen by boards elected in ultra-low turnout elections dominated by incumbent interests (strangely enough) were not ideal for producing such things. We still need them, so let’s get on with it.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of Next Steps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.

One Comment

At the very least, those bureaucracies need to be overseen by councils that are elected by higher turnouts, as in cities really empowered, constitutionally, to make educational decisions that matter; which means that American state constitutions should be rewritten to devolve educational sovereignty, at least over basic education, to regional authorities, who ought in turn to devolve it to municipalities, who might well use their newfound authority to renegotiate their contracts with America’s dysfunctional teachers’ unions, who are the ultimate culprits behind the disaster of the 2020-2021 school year.

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