This excerpt, from a guest column by a retired educator in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, neatly sums up our situation:
Public schools today are given failing grades by many members of the public and by politicians. The reasons given are many, ranging from incompetent teachers and administrators to inadequate funding and “forced” busing. Among the offered solutions are more testing, value-added assessment, prayer in the schools, more technology in the classroom, neighborhood schools, charter schools, year-round schools, longer school days, removal of tenure laws and the breaking up of teachers unions.
While some of these may help, none is the magic potion that will solve our dilemma. Many of our brightest students, with parents who are willing to spend the time, effort and funds to ensure their success, have been pulled out of the public schools. This began in the early 1960s as a response to school desegregation, then continued with the formation of conservative religious academies and the advent of homeschooling.
Today, it is not necessarily “white flight” or religious devotion that sends children to private schools. In many neighborhoods, it is simply “the thing to do.”. Sadly, when people are paying for private schools for their own families, there is less incentive to care about public institutions. The result is a distillation process in which more of the better students move to private education, leaving public schools to do the best they can with a student population of diminishing quality. This is not to suggest that there are not bright children with dedicated parents in public schools today, just that they constitute a significantly smaller fraction than in years past.
This is a strong argument against vouchers. Regardless of the stated intent of their proponents, the effect of school voucher programs would be a further degradation of public schools–a natural consequence of fewer parents caring about them. (Georgia’s private school tuition tax credit should be abolished both due to its drain on the state treasury and its adverse public policy impact.) When elected officials promote such plans, I don’t think of it as “choice.” I think of it as a form of nihilism.
The scenario outlined in the excerpt above is especially true in my county (DeKalb, Georgia) where the underperforming system is held in disrepute and the former superintendent awaits trial on racketeering charges. A recent “meet and greet” with the leading candidate to be the next school system’s candidate inspired a storm and fury of comment among parents on Atlanta’s most popular school blog, several of whom ended up sniping at each other. It is difficult to see the light at the end of DeKalb’s tunnel, but I hope that Dr. Atkison can come in and turn things around.
There is no Superman, only kryptonite. And to make things better, we’ll have to treat it like asbestos, removing as much of the negative as we can before we can move forward. To make progress, we must also educate ourselves and our neighbors that if we expect schools to educate our children, we will all fail. Schools are there to help us educate our children; schools are there to help children learn. That means to ball is always in our court.
Much is required of us, and if we ever make any real improvements, they must start with early childhood education, which means enlightening and assisting young parents (many of them single and poor) to help them help their children develop crucial skills and habits before they hit the schoolhouse door.