The public education system, envisioned by people such as Benjamin Franklin and W.E.B. Du Bois, and built up during the 20th century into a genuine engine of upward economic mobility, has been wounded—mortally, in my opinion.
The aggressive testing regime introduced by No Child Left Behind and implemented by gangster corporations has made the job of public school teacher virtually impossible (if you accept that their job is to educate young minds). Teachers’ unions—along with most public sector labor organizations—are under constant assault from malicious and corrupt politicos on a policy level, and think-tank sponsored media manipulators on a cultural level.
In fact, a sickening percentage of Americans seem to believe that the way to improve the education system is to give teachers less job security and compensation. Let me know how that works out.
To round out the anti-education offensive, the already strained budgets of public schools—especially in low-income districts—are being stretched to the breaking point by policymakers. Arts and Culture curriculums have endured deep cuts for decades, but now even basics like local history and the humanities are facing the chopping block.
All this is happening under the flag of a nation fiercely divided against itself, where genuine policy discussion and compromise has been discarded in favor of soundbite-friendly hyperbole, and activist groups (of any persuasion) seem to have a hard time accepting the basic decency and good intention of their opponents, much less evaluating opposing arguments with an open mind.
That is to say, the prognosis for the public education system is grim.
Interestingly, one of the main policy planks used by the enemies of public education—the introduction of independent charter schools—may well provide the way forward to a new, 21st century education apparatus.
The criticisms of charter schools have validity. They often provide substandard outcomes in student performance; they tend to underserve low-income, minority, and non-native English speakers; and are regularly used by certain cultural groups as an end-run around agreed upon standards. And that’s not even getting into the situations where some charter schools have been revealed to be little more than fraudulent money scams.
As to the questionable outcomes, it should be noted that part of that perception comes from a standardized testing regime which produces conclusions of questionable value, at best. To extend that idea, there are mountains of research data and testimonials by actual teachers that would indicate that “teaching to the test” significantly undermines real education, so the fact that an institution doesn’t produce optimal test results does not necessarily mean that its students aren’t receiving a quality education.
When it comes to the problem of access for the underprivileged, there isn’t any magic bullet. Providing educational and economic opportunity to those who were not born to it is one of society’s greatest challenges, and will remain so for some time; however, rational federal, state, and local standards for inclusion would probably have to be part of the mix.
The third criticism of charter schools—that they facilitate indoctrination into ignorant and intolerant attitudes and beliefs—is actually the root of what I believe will make charter schools the future of public education in this country. Because of the latitude demanded by evangelicals, Catholics, and other religious groups, the charter school system provides a freedom of curriculum that traditional public schools simply aren’t able to match.
For the moment, this shows up in nausea-inducing episodes such as the school in Raleigh, NC, which got caught using history books that depicted slavery as a benign institution, and the antebellum South as some sort of civilized utopia. Obviously, verifiable history, based on primary documentation, begs to differ.
However, the flipside means that communities which are able to found charter schools on their terms have the ability to build a curriculum to a standard of excellence in critical thinking and worthwhile knowledge that could never be measured by any bubble test. Instead of having to impotently complain about asinine summer reading lists, irrational book banning, and poison lunches, parents will actually have leverage to address these problems (which is admittedly a double-edged sword).
The charter school system is far from perfected, and there are certainly drawbacks, chief of which is the fact that they still don’t address the basic issue of lack of resources in low-income communities. All this talk of creating a standard of excellence is nice, but if the school can’t afford to hire capable teachers or purchase up-to-date computer equipment, it won’t amount to shit.
But once a critical mass of education proponents recognize that the 20th century public school system is operating on borrowed time, and put their efforts and resources into building a new apparatus for a new era, it is the belief of your humble columnist that the charter school system will become the platform from which the minds of future generations will be developed.
Alex Benson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.