There are essentially two camps to the public education debate (I’m ignoring the apathetic and the delusional). There is one side that says the current state of public education is not as good as it can be, that we need to reform it, but only to a degree, and the best way to do that is to pump more money into the system and give more power and control to the state. The other side says that public education is essentially a failure, and we need to radically reform or abolish it. In the first camp is the government and those who control it, the establishment political parties, the teachers unions, the graduate schools of education, and the large education publishing companies, who all have a vested interest in the system as it is currently set up. In the second camp are the homeschoolers and unschoolers who want the freedom to raise their kids without interference, and those on the political fringes who are opposed to any form of government control over their children and who do not care to win favor with those in the first camp. This second camp has no vested interest in the system nor do they want any.
The first camp controls public education in America – they control how the money is collected, how it is distributed to the various members of the first camp, how much time kids spend in school, which people have the privilege of teaching our children, the content (or lack thereof) of the “education” provided, and the manner in which they educate (or indoctrinate) the children, also known as pedagogy. Any radical change in the American public education system would threaten the privileged position they hold, and all the money and power that comes along with it. So why would this camp, the one that controls public education, reform it to solve the problems of education which they benefit and profit from? Well, it wouldn’t, and it won’t. Education will not be voluntarily reformed by the government.
Those who disagree might be quick to list off all of the education reform initiatives that we have seen over the past couple of decades, particularly No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top at the federal level, and the expansion of charter schools throughout the nation. If we include increased pay and benefits for teachers, often noted as the solution to our problems, then the argument can be made that the system has been continually reforming itself for decades!
However, the reforms that the government so eagerly touts and advances are often marginal and affect only a small subset of the population (e.g., charter schools, vouchers), as if they’re throwing scraps of food at caged animals. The reforms typically affect kids negatively by browbeating them in an attempt to meet sadly low standards or pass standardized tests which do nothing for children. Worse, many of the so-called reforms do not focus on education at all, but on compensation and benefits (and campaign contributions, union dues, and revenues) for the adults in the first camp that feed off of the system. The education reform initiatives championed by the government typically further centralize decision making in capitol buildings where kids are seen as nothing more than parts of a group represented by an average, as opposed to individual children with individual learning styles and individual needs. They don’t do this because they are merely misguided despite good intentions, but rather they do this because it is how they further entrench their power in a broken but lucrative system.
The government’s first priority is to gain more power and take care of the people who take care of them. The children are never a priority for them; they are but a means to an end. John Taylor Gatto, a renowned public high school teacher turned advocate of ending compulsory schooling, sums up perfectly the problem inherent in public education:
Nearly a century ago, a French sociologist wrote that every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, not to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself. Thus the first goal of a government postal service is not to deliver the mail; it is to provide protection for its employees and perhaps a modest status ladder for the more ambitious ones. The first goal of a permanent military organization is not to defend national security but to secure, in perpetuity, a fraction of the national wealth to distribute to its personnel.
It was this philistine potential – that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expand into an institution for the protection of teachers, not students – that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly long ago in ancient Greece.
Only one group will ever put the education of children first. Parents.