Category: Educational Choice

Blog author: ken.larson
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
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On the weekend I read the text of the talk Barack Obama gave on Tuesday to a public school in Virginia and through the medium of technology to students throughout the nation who wished to see and hear him on their school televisions. I think of Ray Bradbury’s story “Fahrenheit 451″ and plasma walls at times like these.

I’ve written over the years as have others on the errors of having a Federal Department of Education and the Obama speech and it’s reach into the classrooms of America’s kids is an example of why so many have tried to rid our country of that intrusive and unnecessary bureaucracy. Despite Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of the speech as essentially “conservative” — I beg to differ.

The speech was undeniably an intrusion by the federal government directly into the neighborhood school with its end run around the district and state school boards — the remaining link parents have with the public school. School board members are traditionally elected. This, no matter its content, rules the talk anti-conservative.

Many will cleaverly dissect the speech because it is full of so much to ridicule as it pertains to Obama’s actual life and it’s containment of obvious errors, for example pointing out to children that they may be the next inventor of an iphone as an enticement to stay in school when it is well known that both Apple’s and Microsoft’s creators were college dropouts; but that’s not the point of this essay. My point is to illustrate how much the material world and the “me” culture has become a part of the American culture; and to possibly redirect some to consider an alternative.

“The story of America,” Obama says toward his conclusion, “isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best. It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation.”

That’s just isn’t true. Only a relatively small percentage of the Colonists pressed for Independence in 1776 and a central government thirteen years later. And no one’s kids were forced to go to school by the state as they are now. It’s an important piece because it illustrates how much in balance freedom is with the truth, and how important it is to lead others to the truth if they are to remain free. Is this what’s happening in our public schools these days?

About one-third into the talk Obama says, “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.”

That’s a heavy load to put on K-12 kids considering the fact that over 40 percent of those “graduating” from public high school lack grade profficiency in math and composition and many who get into college must take remedial writing and math classes just to stay in school. On the basis of those results, kids have been granted diplomas who quite possibly cannot work out in their mind — and certainly not on paper — what their or the nation’s greatest challenges might or should be. Might it be contended that they don’t know how to think? to reason?

“I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve,” Mr. Obama says. “But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”

“And that’s what I want to focus on today,” he continues, “the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.”

In an article on the kerfuffle “the speech” was causing The Wall Street Journal reported that “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that some of the materials provided to local school officials were poorly worded and may have lead to some confusion about the speech’s goals.” Not the kind of admission you want to make as the director of a federal bureaucracy already at least partially responsible for launching a generation of functional illiterates into remedial programs.

In numerous articles and books, Fr. James V. Schall has written on the life of the mind. Those of the Judeo-Christian tradition are guided by rules. “Do not lie” requires knowledge of The Truth and for one seriously considering piety begins a life long inquiry of The Truth.

Contrast Mr. Obama’s responsiblity you have to yourself with Fr. Schall’s response to a question in an August 2005 interview “…by reading or teaching, we are at best brought to the banks of the river of intellect as it flows on. When we jump in, we sink or swim by ourselves. But we already have a mind that, as mind, is ours, not of our own making. This mind is not given to us to think whatever we wish, but to think whatever is true. If what we wish is not true, it is no virtue to stick to our wishes. Tests of truth exist. We should know them.”

Obama says, “But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher.”

And so we return to that “me” culture, the essence of which is what is good for me, what is it that I want. And this is so totally different from what parents who kept their children away on Tuesday want and in the pursuit of which we should hope that God will grant His blessings.

Blog author: ken.larson
Thursday, August 27, 2009
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As the fall school term approaches there were a lot of announcements this past week relating to education — both K-12 and college — including the annual publication of U.S. News and World Report’s America’s Best Colleges, a Wall Street Journal story about the SAT score results, ACTA’s College Report Card and ISI’s latest edition of “Choosing the Right College.” Then The Los Angeles Unified School District [LAUSD] decided to off load over 200 schools bought and paid for with tax dollars to applicants to operate as Charters. This is most disturbing although many will be shouting hooray.

Let’s recap the situation.

Nationwide, the public K-12 schools will continue to fail miserably despite an increased budget in 2009-10 that will include Obama stimulus money and total over $667 Billion spread over 50 million students — $13,000 plus per child. At colleges, freshmen with GPA’s of 4.7 and a slew of AP courses on their high school transcript will be guided to remedial writing labs so they can get up to speed and write a coherent essay by mid term. Many will not get better at it.

At the same time this is happening we as a nation are having town hall meetings and shouting matches with arrogant politicians and their minions over our distrust with the thought of having government run the health care delivery industry in this country.

Do you sense the disconnect? Why does the idea of public instruction or as my title suggests National Ed Care not bring about the same questioning and emotion and distrust inspired by the prospect of public health management? With education we have years of failure in the U.S. to use as evidence to argue for another path. A path devoid of public finance. But we’re not going there. Why?

Some things need to be laid on the table.

One: The Federal Department of Education and state departments of education are tools of statists. I defer here to Proverbs 22. You know the passages about “the parent is the primary educator of the child.” The educating of a child is a very personal thing. And despite many parent’s lack of confidence it’s something they have traditionally done and can do. Don’t believe me? Read some of the letters sent home during the Civil War and WWI by primarily home educated soldiers. Their expressions of wit, solemnity and grace are far more eloguent than the stuff that lands today’s college freshmen in that writing lab described above. Have doubts? read your kid’s emails. With its continued reach into our education, the government is increasingly pushing to mold curriculum in a fashion that ignores tradition, reason and faith.

Two: The benefit of an educated public is an informed electorate. That’s what Thomas Jefferson believed and it remains an absolute necessity for sustaining a free people. Sadly, our knowledge of American History and Civics is lacking. We left it to the public schools and they have predictably dropped the ball. Don’t believe me? What about earlier this year when Congress almost unanimously voted to tax after the fact employees of a private company who had been paid bonus money. That’s called an “ex post facto” law and is forbid by the U.S. Constitution [Article I, Section 10], the law those legislators swore to support and defend. But the question of doing something explicitly against the law since the country’s founding didn’t raise a stir among the public. Very likely because they never learned about it in their public schools.

Three: Not all students should be pushed toward college. The ease with which credit became available to finance college costs increased the “opportunity” and cost for students who in other times might have chosen a trade or career path that didn’t require four years of college. Now, everyone is considered eligible for that trophy. Most High Schools no longer offer non-college prep tracts so many kids are either overwhelmed or drop out instead of being guided into skills and job training that would fill the nation’s need for tasks which go wanting these days. Stuff like plumbers, electricians, food service, office staffing. I don’t know what it’s like in your neighborhood but in mine a plumber with a good attitude and some cheap cologne can make a valuable contribution and more money than many college graduates.

Charter Schools are public schools under different management. That’s likely to make some of my friends in this debate unhappy but it’s true and I have to tell you that if the LAUSD charter plan goes through, you will see a rush by progressive, leftist activists groups in the Los Angeles area to file applications and start charter schools of their own design, to push their own agenda. The review of charter curriculums after initial approval will not take place for three or more years and since it will be done by the same bureaucrats who have dropped the ball for the past 50 years, we cannot count on the public’s money being put to use in a way that satisfies my point “Two” above: to educate an informed public. Don’t kid yourselves, the charter will not look for operating savings, they’ll use up the $13,000. per child the state’s accustomed to spending. That’s what is happening now.

Anecdotal proof of a need for concern is the furor that took place in 2008 in the San Francisco Bay area of California when elementary school children were taken to the same sex union of their lesbian teacher without parental notification. The teacher thought it would be an enriching experience. The school was a charter.

“But we can’t home school our kids,” cries a mother. “I’ve got to work. We both have to. We don’t have a choice.”

The alternative to chartering is a voucher. Parochial K-8 schools like those run by the Catholic Church and other denominations charge an average of $5,000 for annual tuition in many areas of the U.S.. The number is significantly less than the state spends and the results are superior and the surroundings more in line with a family’s beliefs. As a parent a voucher would allow you to be free to choose.

In my novel about a family’s decision to home school, the mother cries out in doubt, “What if I screw up. What if he can’t get into college.” She is persuaded by an older neighbor and former professor that there will be “lots of help.” And there is. But it’s help that is there to guide them to the truth; not what the state whispers in our ears — a persuasion that there can be a heaven on earth.

National Health Care is a bad idea. State run education has been a failure. Both need to be rejected.

Blog author: ken.larson
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
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Chester E. Finn Jr. served with William J. Bennett [The Book of Virtues et al] in The Department of Education under President Reagan from 1985 to 1988 — that point in Reagan’s presidency when the talk of shutting down the Department had been abandoned.

Bennett has often quipped about his tenure while SecEd as one where he stood at the ship’s wheel turning it from starboard to port all the while not realizing that the cables connecting the wheel with the rudder had been removed. It’s a good way to explain how massive amounts of money get spent in the bureaucrat’s effort both at State and Federal levels to educate kids with a consistent result that kids emerge from public schools in great numbers functionally illiterate.

And we’re talking here about a lot of money. K-12 public education spending in the U.S. with the Obama stimulus added in will total $667 Billion this year or $13,340.00 per public school enrolled child.

Those nearly two million kids who are home schooled and win spelling bee championships are likely wincing at that number since their parents get back virtually nothing of what they pay to the tax man.

Lately we’ve used test scores to validate and measure the public school failure, and those who still head large bureaucracies have tried to tweak their systems with new plans. Bush tried “no child left behind” and Obama’s Chicago friend Arne Duncan is touting “Race to the Top.”

Just off vacation where one hopes to get refreshed, Chester Finn from his pinnacles at Hoover Institute and Fordham Foundation has published a piece at National Review Online that has me confused. He’s a friend on a lot of issues but after reading “A Constitutional Moment for American Education” I’m thinking that Checker, a welcomed nickname, has been to one too many teacher’s conferences.

First let me explain that I’m seeing almost everything government does these days through the dark glass of Obama’s attempted seizure of American social and industrial institutions. He’s trying to nationalize us. So yesterday when I was informed shortly after reading Finn’s piece at NRO that a part of the Obama Health Industry takeover included S224 the “Education Begins at Home” scheme, my heart skipped a beat. Here’s why.

The Obama “health” plan provides “Grants to States for Quality Home Visitation Programs for Families with Young Children and Families Expecting Children” [p. 840] and provides for “coordination and collaboration with other home visitation programs and other child and family services, health services, income supports and other related assistance.” Do you see the dots I’m connecting? In California such a home visitation service already exists, financed by Rob Reiner’s [Meatball] cigarette tax money. It’s cradle to grave control.

Finn’s essay is meant as a reflection of what spurred on the Founding Fathers from the days of The Articles of Confederation to passage of The Constitution — a period he describes as “political invention combined with …. nurturing” which he overlays on the conundrum American education finds itself in today. So far okay, right?

But here it gets interesting because Finn sees traditional K-12 “local control” as obsolete and frail, ill suited to urban mobility, mired in parochial assessments. At the same time he sees a President’s education mottos and marketing schemes doomed to fail because they inevitably are only trying to “make the old system work better” — and I agree with that part.

Yet Finn wants us to take characteristics that drove our Founders toward Constitution which he lists as Imagination, Statesmanship, Courage and Adaptation and apply them to a scheme of National Standards and Measures and the replacement of school “districts” with an array of “virtual or national operators.”

And he inserts into the “adaptation” paragraph a nod to Judicial power that in my opinion is one of our major problems — a concession to opinions from appointees rather than a reliance on representatives for whom we vote. Almost all proposed laws these days are passed by Congress and legislatures with vague directives from those rocket scientists to “let the courts sort it out.” Our law making is a mess and one of the reasons that few of the Congress who voted last spring on a law to penalize executives who were to receive bonus money during the bailout debacle were bothered that The Constitution forbid “ex post facto” laws. These people don’t read the bills they vote on; they don’t read The Constitution. They can’t pass a civic literacy test.

So, where goes Federalism in Finn’s suggestions? Is Checker so blind as to not see that the failures of the education system in America are the failures of the public, state run education systems?

Those Founders who managed to put our country together included John Adams who had been taught at home and with neighbor children under the guidance of divinity graduates until he went off to Harvard and sat for the bar. Most in the country were taught at home and in urban areas at parochial schools up until that time when modernity grabbed hold of our lives — until that time when The Enlightenment took hold of education and under the guidance of progressive liberals made it “public.”

In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright reminds us that politicians generally gain their inspiration from the false notion that they can lead us to Utopia with promises of scientific advance and wider education. But Wright reminds us that “the utopian dream is in fact a parody of the Christian vision.” We will not be made perfect by hard work and study; but only with God’s grace.

Professor James Tooley‘s new book The Beautiful Tree is reviewed at NRO by Dan Lips. It’s a story of an emerging new kind of school in places like India and Africa and the developing world where desperately poor citizens recognize the value of an education and on their own have created a private market for it separate of the state. And it’s working.

Just another instance where elites in The United States of America have something to learn from the natives.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Monday, March 9, 2009
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Washington, D.C., has long been a focal point of debates about vouchers and other forms of school choice–partly because the public schools there are so notoriously bad that a working majority of politicians and parents are open to experiments that might improve them.

Two recent articles highlight interesting developments. First, Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal challenges President Obama to fight congressional action that might terminate the D.C. scholarship program (which currently permits some students to attend private schools with assistance from public money).

McGurn describes “perhaps the most odious of double standards in American life today”:

the way some of our loudest champions of public education vote to keep other people’s children — mostly inner-city blacks and Latinos — trapped in schools where they’d never let their own kids set foot.

Coincidentally, the New York Times looks at the situation at one of the recently Catholic-turned-charter elementaries in the Archdiocese of Washington. This phenomenon is likely to grow more common as big-city Catholic school systems continue to struggle financially. Reporter Javier Hernandez aptly captures both the attractions and the drawbacks of such arrangements: the schools stays open, offering a decent alternative to the conventional public school, but there’s no longer any prayer.

Among the big questions remaining is this: With the specifically Catholic identity of the school no longer in place, how long will the “culture” and the “values” that distinguish it persist?

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
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Trooth in education iz teh key 2 LOLearning.

According to Spiked (HT):

Ken Smith, a criminologist at Bucks New University, England, argues that we should chill out and accept the most common spelling mistakes as ‘variant spellings’.

‘University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell’, he argued recently in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Here’s the original piece, “Just spell it like it is.”


My peeves include “loose” instead of “lose.” How wrong.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
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A few weeks ago I blogged about the California homeschooling ruling. (And Chris Banescu wrote about it in an Acton Commentary.) As you may have heard, the ruling was vacated so the threat has gone away, for now.

But in the meantime, Acton senior fellow Jennifer Morse offered some interesting thoughts on the matter at ToTheSource. Especially striking to me was this passage:”Perhaps this California homeschool dispute represents a larger conflict over the future of society. Whose children are these, anyway?” She goes on to cite the argument of a recent book, “that the competition for the control of children will only increase as children become more scarce.”

Remember that study two years ago showing conservatives having more children than liberals? Connect the dots. I feel a conspiracy theory brewing.

In this week’s Acton commentary, Chris Banescu looks at a ruling by the Second District Court of Appeals for the state of California which declared that “parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children.” The ruling effectively bans families from homeschooling their children and threatens parents with criminal penalties for daring to do so.

Chris Banescu was reminded of another sort of government control:

The totalitarian impulses of the court were further evidenced by the arguments it used to justify its decision: “A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare.” As someone who has lived and suffered under a communist regime (I grew up in Romania), the “good citizenship,” “patriotism,” and “loyalty to the state” justifications have struck a little too close to home. These were precisely the kinds of arguments the communist party used to broaden the power of the state, increase the leadership’s iron grip on the people, and justify just about every conceivable violation of human rights, restrictions on individual liberties, and abuses perpetrated by government officials.

Read the entire commentary here.

As many PowerBlog readers will be aware, homeschooling is an educational choice that increasing numbers of parents are making. Once a fringe activity operating under the radar of the law, over the course of the last thirty years it has practically gone mainstream, being legalized de jure in most states and de facto in the others. No one has precise numbers (the government can’t track them!), but everyone agrees that the number of homeschooled children in the US has long passed the one million mark.

The practice has confronted severe legal challenges internationally—most notably in Germany—but the legal climate in the US seemed calm. Until now. Proof that liberty requires constant vigilance, this particular form of educational choice is under assault in California, where a judge has ruled that all teachers, including parents, must be “credentialed.”

Granted that the legal status of homeschooling in California was especially vulnerable to such an attack, this move adds fuel to a campaign by the main homeschooling legal action organization, HSLDA, to enact a federal constitutional amendment in defense of home education. I’m ambivalent. Leaving aside the question of tactics and political viability, I tend to oppose such campaigns on the belief that defenders of freedom concede important ground by rushing to alter the Constitution every time a threat is perceived. The right of parents to educate their children as they see fit (within certain limits, of course) exists and should be recognized. But that doesn’t mean it must be spelled out in the Constitution. We need to abandon the concept that every right must be explicitly enumerated constitutionally. Instead, we need to shift the burden of proof back to the government expansionists: If the Constitution doesn’t say that the state has the power to do it, then what’s your justification?

But as I say, the California ruling stokes the fires of those who think we do need such freedoms made explicit.

I came across a troubling essay in this month’s issue of Grand Rapids Family Magazine. In her “Taking Notes” column, Associate Publisher/Editor Carole Valade takes up the question of “family values” in the context of the primary campaign season.

She writes,

The most important “traditional values” and “family values” amount to one thing: a great education for our children. Education is called “the great equalizer”: It is imperative for our children to be able to compete on a “global scale” for the jobs that fund their future and provide hopes and dreams for their generation.

So far, so good. But from the somewhat uncontroversial assertions in that paragraph, Valade moves on to make some incredibly unfounded conclusions. (I say “somewhat” uncontroversial because it’s not clear in what sense education is an “equalizer.” Do we all get the same grades? Do we all perform as well as everyone else?)

Valade simply assumes that an emphasis on “education” as a “family value” means that we ought to push for greater government involvement in education, in the form of funding and oversight. “Education funding should be the most discussed topic of the campaign; it should be the focus of budget discussions,” she writes.

Let’s be clear that the immediate context for these comments are the national primary elections. It’s thus fair to conclude that Valade is talking primarily about the role of the federal government. This is underscored by her claims that “Head Start and pre-school programs are not a ‘luxury’ in state of federal budgets; they are an absolute necessity.”

The problem with Valade’s perspective is that it equates concern for education with concern for political lobbying: “Who will ask for such priorities if not parents? Who will speak on behalf of our children’s well-being if not parents?”

It is the case that the great concern that so many parents have for their children’s education have led them to move them into private schools and even (gasp!) to home school them. There is no facile and simple connection between valuing education and valuing government involvement in education. Given the performance of public schools in general compared to charter schools and private schools, there is an argument to be made that greater government involvement in education weakens rather than strengthens our children’s education.

Placing a high priority on a child’s education leads some parents to want their kids to be instructed in the truths about God and his relation to his creation, and this is instruction that by definition is excluded from a government-run public education. So there’s at least as strong a case to be made that valuing education means that we should lobby for less government involvement rather than more, or at least not think of education as primarily a political issue but rather a familial and ecclesiastical responsibility.

“There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce,” said Lord Acton. “It must leave them to the enterprise of others.” One of those “good purposes” is an education centered on Christian moral formation.

See also: “Too Cool for School: Al Mohler says it’s time for Christians to abandon public schools.”

And: H-Net Review, Religion in Schools: Controversies around the World (Westport: Praeger, 2006).

Does a good education demand an appreciation for history? It would seem so. What arguments are there to support such a contention?

Neil Postman writes,

There is no escaping ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

In quoting this passage from Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Ronald Arnett says that history is “the metasubject needed in a good education.”

This contention is a correlate of C.S. Lewis’ opinion that old books are critically necessary to learning. In his introduction to an old book (Athanasius’ De Incarnatione), Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Where Postman praises the study of history for what is constant in human nature, Lewis praises historical study for providing us a perspective from which to judge what is transient and contextual about our own times. Lord Acton, himself a greatly learned and distinguished historian once wrote, “History is a great innovator and breaker of idols.”

Lewis also makes an important methodological point about the preeminence of primary sources, as compared to secondary sources. That is, when we have a question about Plato or Platonism, the reader should first consult a book by Plato or a Platonist rather than “some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

Christians know too that “the human dilemma” is to be understood within the narrative of redemption history (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation).

Those paying close attention to the developments in Christian higher education will take note of the increasing popularity of “great books” programs (see St. John’s College and The College at Southwestern). These are in some sense an extension of the impulse toward a classical academy model of elementary and secondary education.

For more on “what makes a great book,” visit this Scriptorium Daily podcast, which includes the insights of faculty of the Torrey Honors Institute, a great books program at Biola University.