Originally posted at Forbes by Maureen Sullivan.
Those of us who follow education have been waiting for the topic to come up at one of the many, many presidential debates. There’s been talk of “free” college among the Democrats, but the issues of school choice, vouchers, Common Core, charter schools, standardized testing and teacher evaluations have been almost non-existent. So what’s a debate lover to do? I tuned in to watch political activists Dinesh D’Souza on the right and Bill Ayers on the left grapple with the topic of American exceptionalism.
Earlier this month, D’Souza and Ayers took the stage at the University of Michigan, Ayers’ alma mater, to debate under the auspices of the Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group on campus. They had gone head to head two years ago at D’Souza’s alma mater, Dartmouth, and this was billed as round two.
Ayers, 71, is best known as a founder of the Weather Underground, which carried out bombings of government buildings during the Vietnam War. He retired as an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Originally from India, D’Souza, 54, has authored many best-sellers on conservative political issues and spent eight months in federal detention for a conviction on an illegal campaign contribution.
In between talk of immigration, ISIS and the Constitution, they returned again and again to education. I thought their exchanges captured the essence of the school-reform debate that’s going on around the country. I’ve edited their remarks a bit for clarity.
Why can’t we have decent schools for all kids? This is something that’s in all of our interest and we ought to have them. And the idea that (former Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan, who was the head of the Chicago public schools for seven years and then head of the nation’s schools for seven years, and he goes back to Chicago and he can’t find a single public school for his own kids, that’s an absolute damning comment on school reform as we’ve lived it out for the last several decades.
There’s nothing magical about it. But we as a democracy, as a people, ought to say that whatever the privileged, the most privileged and the wisest parents have for their children, we should demand for our community’s children.
If the privileged people get 25 kids in a classroom, we want 25 kids in a classroom. If the privileged get full arts programs in their schools, we want all schools to have full arts programs. If the privileged don’t have to take standardized tests every month and don’t have to be subjected to the Common Core, why do other people’s children have to be subjected to those things?
We should demand, as a free people, that what they get, what Arne Duncan gets for his kids, we want for our kids. It’s a simple kind of improvement. It’s not utopian, it’s within our reach. We can afford it. We should do it.
Why are the schools, Bill Ayers asks, so bad? Funding on American public schools has escalated fantastically. It has gone up many, many times from what it was. And yet the schools never seem to improve. And yet we never see people like Jesse Jackson protesting outside the public schools even though black kids can’t get a good education seemingly in the whole city or in the whole state.
I’m fascinated that Dinesh is against public schools. But public schools built this country in many ways. And we not only ought to have them, people in Winnetka (an upscale suburb of Chicago), people in Grosse Pointe (an upscale suburb of Detroit), they have public schools. They love their public schools. We ought to have more of them. What we’re seeing right now in school reform is exactly what Dinesh describes as public education, which is entrepreneurs moving in, creating charter schools that are in many cases for-profit but they’re all privately managed and they’re taking taxpayer money to do it.
They’re not actually doing anything entrepreneurially to build anything. They’re taking taxpayer money to advance their own profits.
One way to really tackle this public school problem at the root would be for the government, based upon need, to take poor students and put into their hand real purchasing power. And so, for example, if it was parents and students who had that same $10,000 that the school may be spending. But now the money isn’t given to the school because the school has no incentive to spend it well but it’s given to the parent, it’s given to the kid so that the kid now can say, “I don’t like that school, it’s doing a terrible job.” And I can spend this money at a public or private school, wherever I want.
Suddenly the forces of competition come into play just as the way that the Post Office has been radically improved in the last 20 years thanks to the institution of Federal Express. Once there’s competition suddenly the government bureaucrats seem to realize their jobs are imperiled and they begin to move a little faster.
Ayers (speaking of schools that President Obama’s children have attended):
I like your idea of choice if you would say next to this segregated, poor school on the south side of Chicago, right next to it, you’re going to build Sidwell Friends or you’re going to build the University of Chicago Lab Schools and we’ll just say to people, “Which one do you want?” If that’s the choice you’re talking about, but you’re saying they can go wherever they want. How are they going to get to Winnetka?
They don’t need to get to Winnetka. There’s large numbers of people in inner cities. If each one of them had $10,000 of buying power you can be very sure that a lot of entrepreneurs would be creating some very good schools in those regions to compete for those dollars.
Not for $10,000. And you’re asking the taxpayers to say they would back that because nobody else is going to do it. But you’re not actually giving real choices and we’re seeing this with the charter movement. There’s no choice between a great school and a crappy school. It’s two crappy schools. In many ways the charter schools have doubled down on the very things that make the failing schools fail. They’ve doubled down on drill and kill. They’ve doubled down on testing. They’ve doubled down on getting rid of the arts.
If the privileged won’t send their kids to that school, then that’s not a good school.
Correct…So more money helps, parental involvement also helps, high standards also help, being able to fire teachers also helps.
Wait a minute. Really? Firing bad teachers. I love this. Firing the bad teachers is what we need to do. And this is absolute orthodoxy among some people: The idea that it’s the lazy, incompetent teachers that are driving the schools down. The reality is that in the whole school reform movement, short termers who are doing a tourist duty in the inner city these are the people who are terrible teachers.
We need veteran teachers who see teaching as a career. If I said instead of saying that we need to get rid of the lazy, incompetent teacher, if I said, every kid deserves a caring, intellectually grounded, well-paid, well-rested teacher in the classroom, I hope you’d agree with that too.
Read more at Forbes.
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