Should We Just Blow up Public Education and Start Over?

Should We Just Blow up Public Education and Start Over?
AP Photo/Denis Poroy

I’m a little over halfway through my ninth year of teaching. I’ve taught English, Social Studies, career education, and computer science, and I have coached many student-athletes during that time, as well.

Around the same time I started teaching, I got picked up to be a contributor at RedState. I’ve been writing columns here ever since, and it’s given me a pretty good platform to discuss important issues.

Through both of these lenses (as an educator and as a conservative writer), I’ve watched both conservative activists in education and conservatives in general and their treatment of the issue of public education. Slowly, it’s become more and more obvious that conservatives want to just burn the system down and start over rather than keep working to fix it.

I can’t say I don’t understand the sentiment. There are a lot of stories that come out about how bad things are in certain systems and how the students are really at a disadvantage where some of these bad actors are concerned. But then I see a headline like this at National Review and I can’t help but think there’s a better way.

In a piece titled “Destroy the Public-School Systems,” senior writer at NRO David Harsanyi points out how atrocious it is that a high school could have 77 percent of its student population reading at only an elementary level. To Harsanyi’s credit, the headline and the subject of the column don’t quite line up. His point, as he noted on Twitter, is more about destroying public school systems’ monopoly on education, which I certainly can agree with (I am assuming that there is a specific headline editor who wrote the headline for maximum SEO, but I could be wrong).

Harsanyi’s closing paragraphs really spell out the correct take.

Few things have undermined minorities over the past 40 years more than inner-city public-school systems. Rich and middle-class Americans already have school choice. They can move. Neighborhoods with high-performing systems have far higher homes values, shutting poorer people out. Teachers’ unions use tax dollars, often through compelled dues, to help elect politicians who preserve the status quo — which, functionally, is the racial segregation of schools.

One of the most popular arguments against school choice is that granting parents the freedom to pick better schools would only weaken traditional ones. Well, imagine making this argument about any other area of life: “Hey, you can’t leave this supermarket because we’re going to suck even more.” No one would accept that logic. Yet they do for their kids’ education. Maybe when 77 percent of high-school graduates can’t make it through Goodnight Moon, someone will do something. We’re not that far off.

But the headline accompanying the piece doesn’t just appear in a vacuum. There are people all over the conservative movement who actually feel this is the best way forward. And I can’t help but continue to think that it’s possible to save rather than essentially take my ball and go home. Nothing I’m about to say is anything I haven’t said before. It’s just that, once again, we find ourselves staring down arguably the biggest civil rights issue of the modern era and conservatives’ response is to just destroy a system they don’t like and move on.

There are ways that conservatives can get involved and can fix the education system. You can be disruptive without burning it all to the ground.

Often, “school choice” is cited as the reform that will fix things, but there is no single silver bullet. It requires a lot of patience that conservatives have frankly never had on the issue, and it requires active participation.

School choice is a great start, but all that does is pull students from failing schools. Not every kid can get out of those schools, however. Issues like transportation and access to technology are still a major hindrance for a lot of students, particularly in lower-income homes. Some kids aren’t able to get to a school across town, nor are they able to access the digital platforms that are available to push students further ahead. Conservatives would then say “Shut the school down” and force kids elsewhere, but the fundamental barriers to education would still exist.

School choice is a good start, but then how do we fix the schools that are struggling? The schools some kids can’t leave?

We have a noticeable shortage of teachers and very rarely do we have the available funding to pay them what they deserve. A larger-than-necessary chunk of education spending goes to bloated administrative costs and salaries, as though people stuck in a district’s central office are the people we need fixing the problems in our classrooms. We need conservative lawmakers to take steps to increase teacher pay in order to attract better teachers while also limiting the money that can go to administrative employees in the school systems.

Conservatives also need to get better at running for office at the school board level. A lot of the systems trying to implement policies and curricula that are getting called out by activists and parents alike can only be passed if progressives who support those initiatives have a monopoly over district policies.

But school boards aren’t just the elected officials. They are the workers inside, running the day-to-day operations of any school district. And the district isn’t just the central office, but the principals in the front office of every school and the teachers in every classroom. If conservatives felt so strongly about changing what education is in society, they should get into the schools and classrooms and change them from the inside out.

And it’s not like you have to go in and wage a culture war from the classroom. That’s what we accuse progressive and union activists of doing. All you need to do is the job. All you need to do is be an example for the students, and help them understand the world around them. Teaching isn’t preaching, though a lot of teachers seem to think that is their duty. Just be a teacher, quietly fight the social engineering you see, and most importantly be a leader in your school and community.

It’s not impossible to fix our schools, but for one side of the political aisle to want to just blow it up and start over doesn’t actually help the problem.

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