Fixing America’s Poorly Functioning Public School Systems Might Require a Bulldozer
Do you ever get the sense that fixing our nation’s ill-functioning public-education system is like trying to retrofit a belching, century-old coal-fired power plant into a modern, clean-energy facility? Moving forward sometimes starts with a bulldozer—and the realization that one occasionally needs to start from scratch.
I’ve been writing about education reform since the beginning of my journalism career and nothing ever really changes. Policymakers wrestle with the same critical concerns today—students who are ill-prepared for a modern workforce, low graduation rates, a dumbed-down curriculum, and persistent inequities—that they did 30 years ago.
Education officials celebrate the errant bright spot. We hear about upticks in college acceptance rates. Bad news often follows, however, such as the growing need for college-level remedial courses. Educators always lament a lack of funding, even as spending levels soar.
More than 40 percent of the state’s general fund budget goes to K-14 education, and an election cycle doesn’t pass without a host of school bonds. Yet, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we realize that nothing gets any better. School districts use the new funds to build fancy facilities, give raises to their unionized workers and hire legions of new administrators.
It’s still nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher, or to reward the ones who are doing great. Even noteworthy reforms, such as California’s system of charter schools, only nibble around the edges. And it was only a matter of time before special interest groups helped elect a governor who has rolled back that alternative system whose relative success has proved embarrassing to the status quo.
One recent news story caught my eye. “California school districts, already struggling to find enough teachers for classrooms, are facing a substitute shortage so severe that officials at smaller districts fear temporary school closures,” reported EdSource. Add that to the list of other travesties, such as districts that could never master the basics of distance learning and unions that fought re-openings.
There are few things as important as educating our children, yet, as a society, we don’t act that way. We certainly don’t place strict demands on the extra spending. We complain if our latest high-tech gadget feature doesn’t work as promised, but tolerate a public-school system that was built at a time when there were no telephones, automobiles, or radios.
The Southern California News Group Editorial Board, of which I’m a member, recently met with some Orange County CEOs who are admirably trying to boost career opportunities for the majority of students who are not going to attend a university. That problem is acute. I’ve seen it in my life—young people who graduate high school but have no marketable skills, then spend their years in low-paying, unsatisfying work.
It reminds m
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