Falling Behind: How Can U.S. Students Get a Top‐​rate Public Education?

This article appeared in Press‐​Enterprise, February 5, 2006.
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Public schooling has no future. However, there is hope for public education — but only if we stop thinking of it as synonymous with public schooling, which is a rusted, crumbling relic of 19th century thinking.

What is the difference between public schooling and public education, you ask? Public schooling is what we have now: a system in which government agencies control every facet of primary and secondary education, from building the schools and paying teachers to purchasing the books.

Public education, in contrast, does not require government involvement in running schools. The term “public education” simply implies that a good education should be within reach of all children, not that government needs to construct every school and dictate the curriculum in every class.

Unfortunately, public schooling has gotten in the way of public education for more than a century. In the industrial era, public schooling was primarily designed to prepare children for unthinking, regimented factory work. Its function was not nearly so much to educate children as to mold them into a vast supply of automatons destined to populate the nation’s furiously multiplying factories.

We left the industrial age behind, of course, a long time ago. We now live in an era defined by globalization, computers and the knowledge economy, not smokestacks and assembly lines. Innovation and rapid adaptability — not regimentation — are the currency of the day.

Despite this, our top‐​down, industrial school system remains. Public authorities still dictate where children go to school and what they are taught, while creativity and innovation are nonexistent. Moreover, hopelessly encumbered by onerous regulations, restrictive union contracts and political fighting, public schools do not adapt to the changing world around them. The authorities at the top, and the bureaucratic apparatus beneath them, have neither the incentives nor the freedom to keep up.

This is not to say we haven’t tried to fix public schooling. We have undertaken countless initiatives to retrofit the educational‐​industrial complex, especially during the last 40 years. We have tried bigger schools, smaller schools, block scheduling, schools without walls, New American Schools, traditional curricula, back‐​to‐​basics, smaller classes, outcome‐​based education — and the list goes on.

The outputs, however, have remained the same. Despite swapping endless new components in and out and nearly tripling real per‐​pupil expenditures since 1965, students’ scores on such measures as the National Assessment of Education Progress have remained stagnant. As a result, our children’s standing in international comparisons has become a regular source of anguish.

Nineteenth century public schooling simply has no future. However, for public education, the future could be bright. If schools are freed to innovate and compete, like the creators of Google, the iPod or the hybrid car, and parents are free to pick the schools they want rather than having to take the ones they are given, America could finally excel in education.

Moreover, by ensuring that everyone can afford an independent education, either through tax credits, vouchers or some other tool that truly liberates parents, the ideals of public education could finally be realized. Best of all, American children’s education would be built for the future, not the past.