Jul 13, 2011

Public Schools Are Here To Stay, Reforms Will Strengthen Them [Or, Let Me Provide A False Equivalency Straw-Man Argument (It's All I Got!)]

An advocate for a certain approach to school choice recently said that she believed "public schools should go away." Not surprisingly, the comment generated a good deal of controversy.

It's understandable that some Americans are frustrated with our public school system. Public schools helped developed a talented workforce over the years, but the system has lost its way. Today, for too many students, it isn't working at all. Despite the billions we pour into it, public schools aren't delivering what we need in the 21st Century. American students score at the bottom of the pack in math and science when compared to their international peers. What's more, we have persistent achievement gaps between racial minorities and their white peers.

Those who would say there is no crisis in public education, and who would advocate policies that would preserve the status quo, are wrong. We cannot afford a public school system that takes in as much as it does and produces so little for our children.

However, those who look at the system as it is and argue that we should do away with it are equally wrong. The right to a free public education is not only essential to our future success, but a cornerstone of the American creed that anyone who works hard can make it here - because they have the fair shot at a quality, state-funded education.

The answer is not to turn our backs on public schools, but to roll up our sleeves and do the work necessary to turn around troubled schools.

That means investing in our schools to bring more resources to the classroom, and providing good nutrition and counseling services so that students are in a position to learn. But there is perhaps no more important step we can take to improve our schools than enact policies that ensure our kids have access to the very best teachers available.

These policies should include rigorously and fairly evaluating our teachers and rewarding those who succeed on the job with career and leadership opportunities and better compensation. Educators who need help should get it, but those who don’t improve must move on.

We also have to make sure we expand educational choices for parents and students to drive competition and spur reform and innovation in our public schools. In the end increased choice will provide added incentive to our traditional public school system to improve its performance. Many of our public charter schools and magnet schools serve as laboratories for new ideas that, if warranted, can also be use in our traditional schools.

However, support for public education cannot mean support for public schools alone, but also for public school children. We need to do everything we can to serve our public school children and give them the opportunity that a publicly funded education is supposed to provide in America.

Several years in a row in an ineffective classroom can negatively impact a child's entire life trajectory. Knowing that, I support giving kids a variety of educational choices. These can include staying in a school that is evolving, or going elsewhere. This can also mean seeking a spot in a better performing public school or trying to get into a public charter school. Or, for poor children, it can mean securing public funds to attend private schools.

But we must be careful to only offer these vouchers to children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and to hold private schools that take our public dollars accountable for their work with children. We ask and demand no less of our public schools.

It's time to make real and lasting change to our public schools. It doesn't mean doing away with them. It means reforming them.

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