School Reform is a No-Brainer — Except When it Comes to Outreach

It was my good fortune for a few years to work at a not-for-profit that focused on the issue of school reform. Most of our the time was spent bringing to light the fiscal mess of the K-12 government-run system. Unsurprisingly, what we reported on mirrored the same kind of wasteful and over-spending that’s found in government at all levels.

Early on in my tenure I read Thomas Sowell’s terrific book “Inside American Education.” It was, as expected, an incredibly depressing read. The worst part was that when I read it in 2003, the book was already ten years old. The facts laid out by Sowell in 1993 were still mostly unaddressed in 2003. Well, now we’re ten years further down the road.

There is no question that school reformers are achieving success — and the wonderful advance of technology is making virtual learning and homeschooling as popular as ever. Lately, though, I’ve been tempted to unsubscribe from the email newsletters I receive from a few of the nation’s school reform organizations that continue to move at a snail’s pace.

That old depression returns when I think of how many generations of kids have been and continue to be ill-served by a system that is more about the adults running it than the kids suffering in it. Every twelve years a new batch of kids has passed through elementary, middle, and high school.

I’ve written often on the topic of school reform but I’ll only address my number one pet peeve here. For all the so-called education experts out there — why is it that none of them (to my knowledge) start off the discussion by asking “what is the best place for students to learn?” Before you can arrive at how kids learn or what they should learn — shouldn’t you first address the quality of the learning environment?

Maybe one of the reasons this is ignored is because the people who make a living as an administrator or a teacher enjoyed their years as a student. Thus they can’t grasp the idea that maybe being warehoused with a lot of Lord of the Flies type kids isn’t exactly a recipe for success.

Let’s say you get everything else right: you know the best way each child should be taught, and you’ve put together the perfect curriculum. Then you take the kids outside and seat them at desks next to a busy highway. Obviously that’s crazy — but no crazier than thinking every kid can learn as a member of a herd.

This series of articles is about outreach — and there’s no bigger failure on the part of Republicans and conservatives than their inability to sell wholesale school reform to the public. It’s not a difficult issue to explain and it’s a target-rich subject.

There’s the matter of bloated and mismanaged spending causing extremely high property taxes. Because they don’t face competition (they have a monopoly over education tax dollars) there is no incentive to curb exorbitant pay, health care and pension benefits. There’s the existence of tenure — shouldn’t the people to whom we entrust our kids be the last ones to get a guaranteed job? And there’s the failure to properly prepare kids — American business owners continually complain about the quality of the workforce they’re getting.

So — what’s the disconnect? How can our side keep failing to gather the necessary support for the kinds of reforms that are necessary? It’s the same answer on this as it is on every other issue. The message isn’t being rejected — it’s not being delivered.

Up next: Tax simplification is (still) a winning issue.

First published November 7, 2013.

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