We face a new generation of challenges as a nation: the terrorist threat of global jihad, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear weapons proliferation, the rising cost of health care, energy, and entitlements — and the fact that it will be impossible for us to meet any challenge in the future without well-educated citizens. Nothing is more important to the long-term success of the United States than to raise our kids and grandkids with the knowledge, skills, and virtues necessary for them to become successful, independent, and self-reliant — because the American people are the source of America’s strength.
Public education is a matter of national security. It is at once a national and a local issue. And if our best days are yet before us, our public schools need to be greatly improved because the quality of education has been deteriorating for decades. If America’s strength flows from its people, then its people must be educated.
Our current education crisis is a threat to the Republic. Our schools are failing our children. Many graduate from high school without mastering the fundamentals of reading and math. Our students are often without trained teachers, adequate supplies, and safe, well-maintained facilities. Our system of public education was once the envy of the world, but today we’re struggling just to keep pace with the world. And in the competitive global economy, we can’t afford to merely catch up with the leaders. We must set the standard.
Ironically, we aren’t meeting the needs of today’s students despite our new age teaching methods and the marvels of modern technology. The internet, the computer, and the pocket calculator are great tools, but America’s children were better educated in the days of the one-room school house. Experts believe the high school degree of 50 or 75 years ago is the equivalent of the college degree today.
I believe intelligence is simply the ability to learn. And our kids are certainly intelligent, that’s why it’s such a shame that our schools are letting them down. The minds of too many of our children are confined by the circumstances of their environment — their imaginations imprisoned by an ignorance of their own potential. Too many become adults separated from success only by an inability to see what they might accomplish — their vision and ambition obscured by a fog of uncertainty. When done right, education is a journey of self-discovery, an examination of what one might resolve to be, and an exploration of life’s mysteries — combining an awareness of the inward-looking dictum ‘Know Thyself’ of Socrates with Aristotle’s outward-looking metaphysical concept of the ‘Prime Mover.’
Democracy had its genesis in ancient Greece. And the Greeks understood the relationship between education and freedom. The stoic philosopher Epictetus said “Only the educated are free.” As Americans, we value freedom above all else; but the bottom line is we’ve been depriving our children of the freedom to live the American dream. American children deserve to be free from the bonds of ignorance. They deserve the freedom to make the right choices personally, professionally, and on behalf of their country as citizens. It is their birthright as Americans.
Ideally, a child’s first classroom is the home and the first teachers are mom and dad. The most significant roles I have played are that of husband and father because there is no more important work than within the four walls of the American home. Every child deserves a father and a mother. And every child deserves a great teacher. I’m sure all of you remember one particular teacher that gave so much energy, enthusiasm, and passion to the job that you were inspired. Remember how that teacher challenged you? Remember standing at the board working on the calculus problem? Remember the long essay questions in English, civics, or history class? You worked hard because your teacher worked hard. You cared because your teacher cared. And you didn’t want to disappoint your teacher. Beyond calculus, English, civics, or history — that teacher taught you a valuable life lesson — working hard pays off and brings a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction. These teachers still exist today, but the system is rigged against them.
For many students, school itself must offer the sanctuary of home with principals and teachers acting as surrogate parents. Troubled by divorce, poverty, drugs, and violence, many kids are fighting for their survival. The nation’s public schools can help free them from their plight. In poor districts, however, many young teachers arrive full of enthusiasm and idealism only to leave disillusioned. And it is in these impoverished areas where public schools need the most help. Inequities and wide disparities of achievement should not exist between districts. Unequal educational opportunity is the civil rights issue of our time. To address this achievement gap, I support the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. No Child Left Behind demonstrated to a degree that local control can work in conjunction with national standards and testing. No Child Left Behind has added accountability and is addressing the gap between affluent and poor communities.
America is plagued by failing schools despite the fact that we spend more than $500 billion on K thru 12 education every year. Government at the local, state, and federal levels has attempted to improve public education by increasing funding, implementing standards and testing, and requiring the credentialing of teachers; but much more reform is necessary. Our schools succeeded when principals, teachers, and parents had control of the classroom and when curricula and textbooks were objective. But the teachers’ unions have wrested control away — and now the test scores of our students are lagging behind many of the industrialized nations, particularly in math and science. There is little accountability, little innovation, and little hope.
Some years ago, we lowered expectations and began to tolerate mediocrity and failure in our students. We grew more concerned with their self-esteem rather than whether or not they were actually learning the rudimentary skills necessary for acquiring knowledge – reading, writing, and arithmetic. We supported the notion that children can learn as well from one another than they can from a teacher. We tolerated the problem of grade inflation and social promotion. We encouraged the idea that children shouldn’t have too much homework and that parents should always help them with what little they do have rather than only providing help when needed. We chose not to discipline students for being disruptive in the classroom. Teachers unions do not allow us to address these problems. The unions have the money from mandatory dues and the organization to fight reform. They are an entrenched special interest group that has little interest in the academic performance of students. The fundamental problem with our system of public education is that the American people do not control the schools, the unions do. We must free our children from the tyranny of the teachers unions. Accepting the status quo means accepting failure.
School curricula should emphasize math and science because we are most in need of scientists and engineers, and I have proposed that 30,000 mathematicians and scientists enter the public school system. American history is also an important subject. We don’t know where we’re going as a nation if we don’t know where we’ve been. Textbook publishers must understand that our children should not only study the nefarious aspects of our history. They need to tell the whole story. Let’s be sure we give our children the irrefutable facts – the first being the United States is the greatest country in history because it has done more to advance and defend the cause of freedom at home and around the world.
Instituting reforms in order to deal with a bad situation is an American trait. We cannot continue to tolerate mediocrity and failure. There are quite a few immediate actions in addition to the Reason Foundation ideas that would quickly begin to remedy the problem nationwide if we can get them by the unions. Principals should be accountable for their school’s performance and have the power to make hiring and firing decisions. Teachers should have control of their classrooms and be able to dismiss disruptive students. Teacher tenure should be abolished because no one in successful organizations is ever guaranteed a job for life. The credentialing process in technical subjects should be less restrictive so that young college graduates can move directly into teaching. To sum it up, we need a combination of high standards, rigorous testing, empowered principals and teachers, merit scholarships, English immersion, and school choice.
Public schools could also utilize the private sector to help administrators analyze test data and manage revenues and expenditures. School administration in the larger districts is daunting. There is a tremendous amount of waste and inefficiency. Contracting with private companies could help schools budget better, monitor teacher and student accountability, provide tutoring, and develop tests to measure achievement. Schools would operate in a more cost effective manner.
America’s tradition of public education began in Franklin, Massachusetts with the birth of Horace Mann. Mann’s family was very poor, but he used the local library to educate himself. His innate love of learning allowed him to graduate from Brown University as valedictorian and become a successful lawyer. As a school committee member, state representative, state senator, and secretary of the first state Board of Education, he worked tirelessly to advance his idea for a free compulsory school system that educated students both academically and morally. Not surprisingly, supporters of the status quo at the time tried to stop him, but he convinced enough people that his reforms were beneficial. His common school model was adopted nationwide by the 1870′s and helped assimilate our burgeoning immigrant population. Mann later served as a member of Congress. Horace Mann imagined a better way of doing things and became a remarkable leader and education visionary. For his efforts, Mann today is remembered as the father of public education in the United States. I believe we must return to the essence of his early model. One man created our system, and certainly all of us can work together to reform it in his memory and spirit.
Conservatism means staying true to the principles that made this country great. In public education and in society-at-large, we have strayed from these principles. Our founders gave us a great nation governed by a Constitution that granted individual liberty by limiting government power. “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Benjamin Franklin said. And our forbears kept it strong. We must do the same — and public education is critical. An informed and well-educated population would be reflected in the discourse of our political leaders and in our media. It would change our society for the better. If we can accomplish the reforms that are necessary to restore greatness to our public schools, our children will have the freedom to make the most of the American dream and the opportunities our nation provides. Individuals achieving the American dream is good for America. It’s the best measure of our success as a nation.
An education is a covenant — a promise — that each generation keeps with the next, providing children with the knowledge, skills, and virtues to lead successful and fulfilling lives. Educating a child is an act of love. And in America, those who combine hard work with a love of learning cannot fail. So let’s act together to love our children by honoring this covenant. Let’s restore our system of public education to greatness and instill in our children the uniquely American values of freedom, independence, and self-reliance. Our future depends on it.