APPEL: What Happens To Public Education Going Forward?

Through American history public education has been one of the most important functions of government.

Without a doubt for generations the education that most in America received was superior to that available in so many other countries.

But times have changed.

In comparison to so many first world nations today’s results of our education system don’t rank very high. Perhaps this may be because compared to those other countries our outcomes were never really that good, but theirs was just always worse. Perhaps today those other nations have raised the bar of their expectations resulting in superior results, even as we languish in the belief that we are doing just fine. Who knows, but we do know that for the most part the American system has fallen far behind.

The education establishment and left-wing political leaders respond that theirs is the only answer, an answer based on the left’s general narrative that structural faults intrinsic to the American democracy require massive government intervention, and of course spending, to overcome societal defects. Their standard solution is to dictate some undefined redress through equity by creating a massive bureaucracy and imposing liberal think on young minds. They believe that unions and academics are the solution and all we must do is pour billions into their coffers. Sadly, this is the answer that America has been accepting for decades.

Such a big government approach may play well to a trusting America, but results prove that it does nothing to educate kids. To conservatives, surrendering to an inevitability that doesn’t really exist is not in our DNA. We don’t accept all the left’s blather; we expect success, and we know that given a refined structure of education all children are capable of achievement. We do not accept that events long in the past are any precursor to failure in the present.

Of course, education outcomes in Louisiana are far worse than in most of the US (and as a result the world). We are after all a state that has surrendered the education of our future to those who have a pecuniary and political interest, the education establishment consisting of teachers’ unions, superintendents, school boards, and so many other “experts”. Folks who have demonstrated an uncanny ability to protect their interests, while watching the general decline of the education of children.

Making matters worse especially for the past six years the education establishment has had a champion in the Governor’s Mansion, a governor who has supported their self-protecting actions and has failed to suggest even the slightest reform to a system so desperately in need of reform.

One answer to redress education failure accepted by so many conservatives has been the siren call of school choice. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misconception of what this means. Many see it as a system of parent managed charter type schools, associated with an abandonment of traditional public schools. The demographics of our school age set, and our state’s geographic/demographic domain defeats a wholesale focus on that form of school choice.

When I was Chairman of the Senate Education Committee there were about 750,000 public school kids, large numbers from poor backgrounds. Roughly 50,000 were in public charter schools and the balance were in traditional public schools. School choice can be an important element of a viable system, but the simple fact is that we don’t now have, nor will we ever have the capacity in non-traditional public schools to educate 750,000 children. The obvious answer is we can’t abandon the concept of traditional public schools, we must fix them. Only then there can be broad parental choice between traditional schools and other forms of schools.

So, what are we to do? My answer is based on an age-old adage, throw out the rascals. What I mean is that it is far past time to break up the educational establishment monopoly, to once and for all turn our back on boot licking politicians, and to emplace leadership that will make it clear to our people that education is our top priority and that it’s a citizen’s civic responsibility to do what must be done to change our expectations from mediocrity to triumph.

In my view we would shift to a new paradigm. Integrally linked would be how we fund and how much we fund this new system. Today we fund education at a substantial level, but the problem has been that those funds have gone to support an education establishment that has bred failure. Under a new education regime, we would re-program that funding toward a system that rigidly demands success.

And how must citizens define their role in change? Think about this, how many times have you heard a political candidate say that they are for strong education, even as they defend the status quo? I dare say that the answer is every time. Under a new paradigm there would be no defense for the indefensible. Every politician must be expected to explain how they could possibly support a system that has failed us. They must be willing to exchange a monopoly that wastes young minds and scarce resources for one that is efficient and effective. They can’t be allowed to flimflam citizens with catchy phrases and empty ideas. They must be willing to take decisive action.

Louisiana must replace its public-school structure. School choice is an important element of that change, but only in the context of the other, perhaps even more important, characteristics of a strong traditional public education system, accountability and high expectations.

To put it simply, though there is nothing that can be done to tweak the current status quo, there is also no substitute for a viable traditional public-school system. Blow it up, abandon a belief that doing the same things over and over will ever breed better outcomes, be creative, demand excellence, lead for a change, those are the words that I want to hear from future leaders of our state.

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