A battle is raging between those who would challenge our public school monopolies and those who wish to nationalize school curricula. There is much more at stake here than how Jane and Johnny learn to read.
The success of the American experiment has always rested on a balance between opposing forces, between those seeking common purpose and those sustaining healthy diversity. A great nation needs both in proper measure. A common language, a common set of founding principles, a common respect for each other and the rule of law binds us together. A diversity of objectives, a richness of experiences, and a willingness to challenge the status quo challenges us to keep moving forward. Nowhere is this more important than in education.
The Charter School movement, an autonomous mix of initiatives taking place in cities and states across the country, has made spectacular progress. Charters are proving that schools under local control, answerable directly to the parents and children they serve, can outperform monopoly public schools that have been captured by entrenched interests, principally teachers’ unions and the politicians their profuse campaign donations can buy.
Charter schools’ ability to experiment and innovate, guided by parental choice, is often the best hope for urban minority children who would otherwise face bleak life prospects. If current trends continue, charter schools could revolutionize K-12 education, discovering paths to success that no union boss or central planner could divine.
But trends might not continue, because countervailing forces are attempting to drag both Charter Schools and high performing public schools down to least common denominator standards called Common Core. Designed by technocrats in Washington, this “one size fits all” curriculum was dispatched to the states along with financial “incentives” to encourage “voluntary” adoption. Fortunately, attempts to slip Common Core under the radar have failed, as informed opposition swells.
It’s easy to get bogged down in pedagogical debates over the precise content of Common Core, or get distracted by extremists on both sides of the issue spouting as many opinions as there are experts for hire. But there is no doubt that high performing states are uneasy about being dragged down to standards that are at best interim goals for lower performing states.
My state of Massachusetts is a case in point, the nations’ leader in education. While the expansion of Charter Schools continues to be handicapped by onerous requirements that force taxpayers to make financial reparations to public schools that lose students to competing Charters – basically paying failing schools not to teach – even at a modest penetration rate of 18% Charters are forcing public schools to step up their game. Why Massachusetts wants to surrender excellence in search of equality by outsourcing its curriculum development to Washington is a mystery.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jim Stergios, Executive Director of the Pioneer Institute, former Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy at the Massachusetts Office of Environmental Affairs, and onetime prep school headmaster, for a RealClear Radio Hour interview that helped me understand what’s at stake. A serious man on a serious mission, Jim has been involved in education reform for decades. And his indictment of Common Core is as compelling as it is damning.
As he noted, the English literary canon would be replaced by selected readings McNuggets. Algebra 2 would be considered a sufficient terminal high school math course. And the whole initiative appears illegal on the face of it—as Jim showed through his encyclopedic knowledge of the federal statutes that explicitly prohibit the federal government from developing curricula.
Whether you have children in school or not, I urge you to pay some attention to this issue. Brick by brick, the edifice of federalism is being dismantled, undermining the diversity and freedom of choice that made our nation unique. Yet, as the fight against Common Core shows, there’s still hope for fighting back.
About the Author: In the 35 years since Bill Frezza graduated from MIT with degrees in electrical engineering and biology he has been a scientist, an engineer, a product manager, a salesman, a consultant, an entrepreneur, an author, a technology evangelist, and a venture capitalist. His early career on high-tech’s bleeding edge included the development of first generation electronic newspapers, home banking, home shopping, cable modems, multi-user videogames, wireless LANs, and wireless email, all of which became a success – for someone else a decade later. His 15 years as a venture capital investor working with early stage telecom, semiconductor, and biotech startups taught him humbleness, risk aversion, and the ability to identify ten fatal flaws out of five in any startup business plan. Frezza is a frequent guest on CNBC, FOX, and CBN News where he is challenged to reduce complex economic and policy issues into thirty second sound bites. More writing by Frezza can be found at BillFrezza.com. This article originally appeared in Forbes and appears here with permission from the author.