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What Can't be Said Today

In education these days, it's only politically acceptable to discuss how much is spent, not how well it's spent.
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Fifty years ago this week, John F. Kennedy said a funny thing in his first televised debate with Richard Nixon. Referring to a statistic about all the new schools built during the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy observed:

The reason that the schools have been constructed is because the local school districts were willing to increase the property taxes to a tremendously high figure -- in my opinion, almost to the point of diminishing returns in order to sustain these schools.

If only JFK were around now to share his thinking about how those "diminishing returns" are looking now. To many in the education establishment today, Kennedy's statement would be heresy.

For the last generation, in city after city, a combination punch of emotional appeal and fiscal irresponsibility have produced endless increases in public school spending. The equation is simple: spending = quality. "You show me a failing school," the argument goes, "and I'll show you a well-structured enterprise that's been grievously under-funded. Never mind that you're supposed to believe teacher quality is only measured in years served. Never mind that you're supposed to pay for the patronage jobs that have no effect on learning. Never mind that bad teachers can't be fired. Leave this to us; we're the experts. Now give us more money."

Fast-forward to now. And let's pretend for a moment that a high school diploma still means something.

"You can't defend a status quo in which a third of our kids are dropping out," says President Obama. True. And in some places it's a lot worse. A 2009 report by Colin Powell's America's Promise Alliance found that the only 34 percent of Cleveland's public school students finish high school. Indianapolis: 31 percent. Los Angeles: 44 percent. Colin Powell himself calls the dropout rate a "moral catastrophe." What are the policies of the education establishment? "Drop out if you like, but by no means can we allow vouchers or charter schools to compete with district schools -- that, after all, would cost us market share."

The fact is, there are great, average, and low-performing schools, public and private. There are also great, average, and low-performing teachers. (Every other industry just called; they say they have a range of employee performance too.) Indeed, generalizations about district, charter, and private schools in America are distractions because no parent has an urgent need to compare aggregations of 1,000 of this type of school versus 1,000 of that other type. To a particular parent, in a particular town, school choice just means a few more individual options -- options that could make the difference between whether their child gets an education or not. Denying parents those options is saying, "We don't care what you think. You have no voice here. We'll send your kid where we damn well please."

Has anyone ever noticed that status quo defenders get more angry about vouchers and charter school proposals than shocking dropout rates? Why would kids in a non-unionized school elicit more outrage and militancy than kids in no school at all? I think we know. It's not about the kids. If it were, the education establishment would see dropout rates as the real obscenity, not non-unionized teachers. People betray a lot about themselves by the things that make them indignant.

I say it's time to raise the volume of our indignation. Teacher tenure hurts children, and those who support it are selfish, craven, uninformed, or all three. Denying other educational options to children stuck in chronically failing schools is legalized cruelty. Accepting a system where billions of dollars disappear in patronage jobs is rationalizing theft from children. These things are shameful, and more people should say so out loud.

Why does Kennedy's statement seem so strange? Because in education these days, it's only politically acceptable to discuss how much is spent, not how well it's spent. We're also supposed to pretend that all teachers are the same. And if we don't accept these rules... well... then we face being called names. Like in a schoolyard. By a bully.

Bring it on.

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