Perhaps Jonah Goldberg Should Go Back To School

Ah yes, Jonah Goldberg of LA Times has asked the age old question, “Why have public schools at all?” Deftly and succinctly, he does a grand job of characterizing the liberal argument for public schools thusly:

OK, cue the marching music. We need public schools because blah blah blah and yada yada yada. We could say blah is common culture and yada is the government’s interest in promoting the general welfare. Or that children are the future. And a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Because we can’t leave any child behind.

Because my argument is most definitely best characterized by such deeply profound statements such as “blah blah blah,” and the perennial favorite, “yada yada yada.” Such eloquence, such deep insight…

Such utter horseshit.

I am a product of the public schooling system; proudly so. I graduated from Tracy Joint Union High School back in 1995 a member of the International Baccaleaureate program finishing with a 4.16 GPA, and credited for a college semester of Biology and English Literature. While I have never pursued a degree, I was able to complete one of the most difficult curriculums in the country (at the time the Naval Nuclear Propulsion school centered in Orlando Florida was ranked right up there with MIT and Harvard Law) and have never felt ill-equipped in today’s job market.

If anything, the higher education that I have engaged in has been, to be blunt, not very challenging, and I’ve actually bored myself right out of college twice.

So it’s not that the public schools are a lost cause, though wingnuts like Goldberg would like to portray them as such in their overarching goal of privatizing EVERYTHING! As sparkling proof of the hopelessness of public schools, Goldberg points out the DC school system, and while riffing on the violence in the systems etc. fails to put everything in context. Of course DC school systems are bound to be violent; DC itself is one of the most violent places in America! What? Were you expecting campuses to have a mystical forcefield upon them?

Which points to another blinding discrepency in Goldbergs writing. In touting the success of non government schools, he omits the demographic factors that also contribute to this. It’s not just that government has kept its fingers out of the pudding, there are other contributors too.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing No Child Left Behind and the Public Schools by Scott Abernathy, a very useful and intuitive tome that perhaps Goldberg himself probably should have read. It takes the longer, more nuanced roll that education isn’t a two sides of the coin kind of argument and does well to point out that there are most definitely environmental factors that also affect a school’s chances for success, finding much data to back the concept that schools that service children of poverty and ethnic backgrounds have a harder time than say a private school that teaches mostly priveleged white kids living in the ‘burbs.

Are the poor minorities dumber than the rich white kids? Hardly, but they were dealt a worse hand, so one can expect them to have a more difficult road to success.

Even public schools that don’t have to contend with the pitfalls of the inner city don’t fare too bad according to the studies in the book, which puts a bit of a wrinkle in Jonah’s assertion. Public schools can succeed.

And it’s important that they do, and not for the blah blah blah and yada yada yada that Goldberg so rightfully points out. The arguments not to privatize anywhere else work just as well here. In a fully private system the only incentive system lies with profit. An institution, ultimately, will do what is profitable, not necessarily what is good for the consumer. Much of the time the two mesh, but where they don’t mesh becomes the problem; cut corners, a lack of protection for the consumer, and in the case of MY kids, you are damn right I want some protection for them and their rights.

However in a democratic system, profit is coupled with power of vote to create a system wherein the provider (the school) not only has to do what is profitable, but also has to appease the voting populace (via school boards members who are typically voted upon) in order to come to an amicable conclusion. This ALONE is for me worth the price of admission as now I have a way of making sure I can get my girls into a good school that doesn’t force them to praise Jesus.

Under a fully privatized system of education, schools can choose who they let in and where they are located. There’s which may still have the unfortunate effect of leaving behind kids, and most likely those that are most in need of quality education, why set up a school in a poor neighborhood with a high crime rate if you don’t have to? And just imagine if the government tried to force one of these private schools to do so, I can already hear Rush Limbaugh tilting at windmills about the government sticking its head in where it doesn’t belong.

Public schools are probably our best hope of teaching our children and preparing them for the fastly growing world we see today, but nobody is arguing that the system isn’t broke. It is, and just throwing the money won’t fix the problem.

First, for a first world country, we are unacceptably ranked against other first world nations. Let’s get over ourselves and find out what those doing better than us are doing, and see what part of their programs we can adopt.

Then, let’s realize that just throwing money at the problem won’t work. Nor can we expect that a broad sweep of federal mandates a la NCLB to produce acceptable results. Understand that there has to be a set national standard, but the way to achieve that standard has to come locally, from communities who know the unique challenges facing their children.

Also, we have to understand that the school alone is not responsible for the quality of education and the child’s ability to receive it. There are other social factors involved that play heavily; crime, drugs, local culture, etc. It’s hard to ask a kid to focus on what he’s supposed to be learning in school when he goes to bed to the sound of gunshots every night.

And let’s get rid of this idea that public education is too broke to fix. It’s not and arguments to the contrary are a fallacy.

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