Wednesday, September 5, 2007

No Bureaucracy Left Behind

There was another important public service announcement from the media last week, lambasting the Bush administration’s failed No Child Left Behind law. Susan Goodkin and David G. Gold wrote a column entitled, “The Gifted Children Left Behind”. While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment and much of the substance of their argument, I take serious issue with one specific part of it:

“Perhaps if more policymakers sent their children to public schools they would address these unintended but disastrous consequences of No Child. Rather than trying to rectify this situation, however, many politicians advocate a voucher program that would only encourage more parents to desert public education.”

The writers have obviously overlooked that these politicians (and anybody else who believes in school vouchers) are trying to rectify the situation. I was under the impression that this kind of rhetorical chicanery was the exclusive purview of the Republicans. Goodkin and Gold have tried to use a massive logical fallacy to defend the system- one that only makes sense if you breeze by it.

They also commit a second egregious fallacy. They confuse the effects of No Child Left Behind with the reason it was implemented in the first place. They make it sound as if gifted children weren't being bored out of their minds before (trust me, they were) and that it is this stinking law that is to blame.

Then they continue:

"Some politicians justify vouchers with the Orwellian claim that taking money from public schools to pay private tuition will improve the public schools by forcing them to compete for students. This claim is absurd given the uneven playing field between public and private schools."

"Most obviously, private schools can reject any student who would require extra time from teachers. Thus it is left to public schools to handle children with behavior problems or severe learning impairments, and non-English speakers. Until private schools receiving vouchers are required to accept all applicants, vouchers simply allow them to cherry-pick public school students, giving them an insurmountable competitive edge."

"Orwellian"?! "Absurd"!? In my opinion, this rhetorical maneuvering is not only offensive, but it betrays the weakness of their argument. Why aren't we trying to expand the number of schools with an "insurmountable competitive advantage"? Why do we insist on conflating defense of the public school system with defense of children's education? They aren't the same thing.

As for the "cherry picking" concern, if there is public money available from students with behavior problems, severe learning impairments, and non-English speakers, then trust me, somebody will start a school to capitalize on that money. Goodkin and Gold act as if there won't be an increase in the number of private schools when there are suddenly billions of dollars to be made. That is Orwellian and absurd.

To put it bluntly, if your only argument against vouchers is that you think we should protect our non-functioning public school system (the single greatest threat to national security), then you need to reexamine your position... and your priorities.

My feeling on the matter is clearly not a popular one. I do think parents should desert the public school system. Or I think they should at least have the right to. Parents' allegiance is to their children, not the system or the teacher's union. And that is something I feel incredibly strongly about.

It is my fervent belief that the only hope of ensuring a brighter future for our children is to introduce accountability into the school system- ironically, the very thing the failed No Child Left Behind law was attempting to do.

The problem with the law it that it tries to fix the bureaucracy by adding more layers of bureaucracy to it. It didn't remove the bureaucracy from the system. And that's what needs to happen.

What's worse is that No Child's instrument of choice was more standardized tests. Anybody who thinks that more standardized tests will fix the schools hasn't been a student recently enough.

You cannot measure curiosity with a standardized test. You cannot measure a love of learning with a standardized test. Curiosity and a love of learning are more fundamental than arithmetics and spelling, because without this passion, students won't teach themselves for the rest of their lives. They won't tackle the big problems.

And it seems obvious to me that the only way to get kids excited about learning is to put their needs first.

But the public school system doesn't put kids' needs first. It puts its own needs first. It is simply trying to survive. No one can blame the stewards of the system for that- it's their livelihood. But we shouldn't let bureaucratic subsistence guide the future of education either.

Truly fixing the schools, and not simply maintaining the system, requires a new kind of accountability- one better suited for parents and students to gauge for themselves.

The strongest argument against giving parents this choice is that public schools will lose out because they can't compete.

Of course they will lose out. And of course they can't compete. That's the whole point. We should sacrifice thousands of kids' educations because we feel sorry for the schools!?

My goal is not to guarantee the future of the public schools- that's the goal of the teacher's union and the administrators. My goal is to guarantee that kids have the right to a decent education and not simply to decent day care.

The schools are there to serve the students, not the other way around. As such, before we are concerned about being fair to the schools, we need to make sure that we are being fair to the students.

And until opponents of vouchers can come up with a better argument, I will continue to hold them and the system they defend as being utterly contemptuous of the needs of children.

*To be sure, there are serious concerns that people have about the risks associated with privatizing education through vouchers. These concerns are legitimate and deserve to be addressed. For the sake of my readers, I will take those up tomorrow.

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