Wednesday, January 31, 2007

COLUMN -- Can a monolithic school system serve the common good?

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:50 AM |  

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

An indication of the problem we face making any kind of real education reform is in the dueling education reports that recently came across my desk.

From the Center on Education Policy comes a defense of the traditional public school system, "Why We Still Need Public Schools." It declares a primary purpose of public education is "accomplishing certain collective missions promoting the common good." It lists six:

• Providing universal access to free education,
• Guaranteeing equal opportunity for all children,
• Unifying a diverse population,
• Preparing people for citizenship in a democratic society,
• Preparing people to become economically self-sufficient,
• Improving social conditions.

The report admits that public schools are not meeting expectations in these areas and reforms are in order. However, the report notes, "Most current efforts to reform public education have focused on increasing students' academic achievement. … But the reasons given for why it's important to improve achievement often stress individual or private economic benefits, rather than public benefits."

The report makes clear the common good is a primary benefit and justification for a publicly funded education system.

The second report, this one from the Cato Institute entitled "Why We Fight — How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict," concludes public schools inherently work against their own collective objectives.

Public school conflicts over intelligent design, freedom of expression, book banning, multiculturalism, mandated integration, sex education, homosexuality, and religion in general are not aberrations. Conflict in a centralized school system is inevitable. Cultural, ethnic and religious groups have no choice but to fight for their values in a system where "unity" is controlled by the politically powerful.

Indeed, community benefit must be part of any discussion of public education — we do spend almost 40 percent of the state budget on education. But the Cato report presents convincing examples in support of an intuitive notion — conflict over who controls policy that governs public schools is inevitable. It creates divisiveness rather than unity. Such conflict diverts time and resources from the mission of educating individual students.

These two reports, read in tandem, raise three linked questions for educators, the governor and legislators.

• How do we reconcile, if we can, the dichotomy of common good versus individual achievement in the making of statewide education policy?
• Is the purpose of public education to serve the individual or to serve society, and if the answer is "both," how do we decide priorities when inevitable conflict arises?
• Can a common good be achieved within a single monolithic education system?

Those are questions neither the governor nor the legislators have wrestled with in public, opting instead for "reform" proposals that are simply new best guesses for achieving politically compromised objectives. We're changing education policy, but not changing the way we make education policy.

Think of our current "obsolete" education system (the governor's word), as a person with a blindfold bumping into a wall. The reform proposals on the table turn the person to the right or the left, give him some walking room, but they don't remove the blindfold. Sooner or later, our guy is going to hit another wall. Therein lies the inherent problem with a monopolistic education system. It is blind to changes in the environment until it bangs headfirst into them.

Reform is not doing different things (turning right or left); it is doing things differently (taking off the blindfold).
If the governor and the Legislature are serious about education reform they will decentralize decision-making — fewer top-down mandates to local districts and schools, more freedom for districts (and individual schools) to respond to local needs (the charter school model).

Beyond reforming the public school system, the governor and the Legislature ought to take a larger view of "public education." Public education for the common good consists of traditional public schools and nongovernmental schools. Policy should foster an environment where private and home schools are healthy complements to the government system.

The more eyes focused on the path ahead, the more likely we can change direction before hitting the wall of obsolescence.

Decentralizing and expanding the concept of public education is a radical approach to reform, but it is also an honest attempt to reconcile two very different perspectives in two otherwise irreconcilable reports. The alternative is the same old debate that inherently produces conflict over who gets final control of education policy. That is not good for children. That is not good for the republic. It's time to be bold.

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