Monitor Board of Contributors: Here’s one way to revolutionize public education
Our public education system needs a major renewal. I use the word renewal because I believe public education is worth revitalization. My small-government friends argue that complete privatization is the solution. I strongly believe that a public system accessible to all is essential to a healthy society. My big-government friends would argue that lack of money is the problem. I would push back and state that no amount of money will fix a broken system.
I am not a professional educator, but I am a citizen, a parent, a customer and an investor. Our fifth child will graduate from Pembroke Academy in 2014. All five of our children have benefited from their time in the public system. But the reality is that our system of education is not producing the educational value that we all want, expect or need. It’s broken.
Without exception, the educators, parents, taxpayers and students I talk with agree that the system is failing.
Complaints are not generally about educators or administrators. Most of these good employees are doing their best to work at their passion of educating students. But most educators are frustrated working in a system they don’t like.
As parents, we have had our run-in with a few poor educators. Two come to mind. One is no longer an educator. The other is protected in a system where this teacher does not belong. I am not writing to gripe about a few bad teachers. Nor do I think we need to get rid of most administrators. It is the system that is failing us, not most of the people in it.
To use a military analogy, we are asking sailors to fight a modern sea battle using century-old ships.
Parents blame educators and educators blame parents. In principle, I agree with the educators. Parents are responsible for the education of their children. Therein lies the rub. The system almost allows zero parental influence upon it. Yes, we have representative school boards, PTAs and parent-teacher meetings. Yes, administrators have open-door policies. But when it comes to choices and influence and change, a parent has almost no power in the public system. The answer is in the money.
Jesus said, “Where your money is, there your heart will be also.” While the context of his words was about his followers investing in his kingdom work, the principle will work in education. As an example, the average parents who sacrifice to put their children in a private school are much more apt to be involved. I’ve watched this happen over and over again. Why is this? Are they better parents? No. But the reality is their heart follows their investment. Also, the private school administration is much more responsive to parents because they are paying customers. In the public system, the parent has no financial tie to their child’s education. Paying property taxes is no comparison to the direct purchase of educational value by the customer. A parent with a student in the public system has no monetary leverage to affect change.
Recently I was talking with a friend who is the CFO of a $60 million public school system in Massachusetts. His daughter is No. 525 on the waiting list to get into a charter school kindergarten. The charter system is taking off because parents get not only a choice but also influence with their dollar. And educators have flexibility to adapt to better educational practices.
Without going to a complete voucher system, here is an idea: What would happen if parents in the public system were given a financial voucher to purchase a teacher?
Let’s call this a modified voucher system. That teacher would then be in contract to the parents who have purchased his or her services. That teacher would be tasked with supervising the child’s education, whether through direct teaching or overseeing which classes the student took.
I imagine the day when my children have children. Rather than enrolling this next generation in a monstrosity of a sinking ship, these next-generation parents would have direct ties to a teacher whose primary job is to supervise the education of 20 or 30 students. Imagine the creativity a system like this could generate. Imagine the problem solving. Imagine the care given to exceptional needs.
Most important, imagine the parental collaboration with educators. Most teachers would be motivated to excel as they would now be in the market for students.
This is just one idea. There may be better ones out there. The challenge is great. There are some powerful institutional idols to be destroyed. But to neglect the need to revitalize our failing education system will be catastrophic.
(Rev. David Pinckney of Chichester is pastor of the River of Grace Church in Concord.)