Thursday, August 10, 2006

COLUMN -- P-U-B-L-I-C doesn't spell 'monopoly'

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:58 AM |  

Thursday, August 8, 2006

As the saying goes, "when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." Stillwater resident Karl Bremer grabs a sledge hammer in his Aug. 8 Viewpoint piece "She's says it's No. 1, but is she for it or against it?" His only political tool is guilt by association, so every problem looks like Michele Bachmann, 6th District congressional candidate.

The gist of Bremer's harangue is that it is somehow inconsistent for Bachmann to say that public education is "her number one issue" and accept campaign contributions from individuals who have signed the proclamation of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, which favors "ending government involvement in education." In his effort to politically nail Bachmann, Bremer pounds on contributors to the Alliance as "public education abolitionists" who "want to kill public education."

Continuing the one-tool theme: When public education is equated only with government-run schools, then every criticism of state schools looks like an attack on "public education." That is simply not the case.

Public education is more than "public schools." Hammering away with personal attacks, Bremer fails to nail down the fundamental issue underlying his rant — opposition to parental school choice, the idea that parents of all income levels, not just the well-to-do, should have the opportunity to free their children from schools that aren't meeting their needs, including the option of sending their children to neighborhood private schools.

Bremer applies a narrow definition of "public education" that equates it solely with the monopoly system of government-run schools; thus any criticism, justified or not, is seen as criticism of "public education" instead of what it is — criticism of one system of delivering skills and knowledge. Criticism is seen as an attempt to "kill public education." Not true. Public education is more than "public schools."

"Public education" should be any education that furthers public interests. It is not a specific system for delivering skills and knowledge. A society that values individual liberty and encourages creative approaches to social problems ought to have more than one tool in the box. State-run schools, charter schools, private schools, religious schools, home schools, cyber schools and forms of education that haven't even been thought of yet all have a place in a public education system focused not on system preservation, but on educating children.

The "public education" debate is not about whether private schools are better than state schools. It is not about whether home-schooled kids win more spelling and geography bees than public or private school kids.

It's not about whether some parents want their kids to receive an education steeped in religious values and others want education focused on the learning process rather than core knowledge. It's simply about making policy that encourages opportunities for all families, of all economic levels, to educate their children in a manner they, not the state, choose.

That is why it is so bizarre that those claiming the most interest in preserving "public education," including teachers unions and school administrators, are those most opposed to parental school choice, which would create greater educational opportunities for all children.

Section One of Article XIII of the Minnesota state constitution authorizes the Legislature to "establish a general and uniform system of public schools." But within that charge, there is no notion of exclusivity. In other words, the Minnesota constitution requires public schools, but does not limit "public education" to public schools.

Section Two of Article XIII prohibits direct state support for "schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught," but it does not prohibit individual parents who receive educational vouchers from freely using them at religious schools, provided (courts have ruled) there are other non-religious alternatives.

The point is simply this – Minnesota is not constitutionally bound to a monopolistic, state-controlled education system. To question the effectiveness of a single-system of delivering skills and knowledge to all children, regardless of how well it does the job, is not inconsistent with making a broader-based notion of public education one's No. 1 concern.

No one person or one system has all the answers for educating all children; but there are schools in both the public and private systems achieving great successes, even among the hardest-to-educate of children. It is the hammerin' Bremers, not the Bachmanns of the world, who stand in the way of families seeking out and choosing those schools for their children.