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American K-12 Education: A Call to Innovative Experimentation

The United States of America is home to a host of astounding inventions. From potato chips in 1853 to the first nuclear weapon near the close of World War II, Americans have innovated in response to desires and challenges—dietary and military alike.

Our historical education system has been no different. Even before the birth of our nation, the Old Deluder Satan Law served the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s interest in combatting the devil by teaching children how to read the Bible. By the 1840s, Horace Mann, an education secretary in the context of a rising immigrant population, came up with the idea of “common schools.” He desired to promote democracy and, in turn, helped start elected school boards and a professionalized and centralized school system. With the dawn of the 19th or “human capital” century, communities throughout the country responded to the need for more educated workers by building more high schools and drastically increasing graduation rates. As Claudia Goldin has said, “By the mid-1950s the U.S. lead in the human capital century was astoundingly large. A wide gap existed between Europe and the United States in the education of youth.”

Simply put, our education system, despite its flaws, was doing well on an international scale because it responded to the apparent needs of its day. Paradoxically, however, this premium on pragmatic problem-solving has resulted, in part, in a 21st century system that flounders in mediocrity. Today, there are over 55 million American K-12 students from numerous and diverse backgrounds. A national consensus on what are the most urgent economic or social problems currently facing society is unheard of. We cannot shape students, then, in response to widely-shared perceptions of current and future issues. But instead of allowing pluralism to become our undoing, we can harness the opportunity-causing resource of education to make it our greatest strength.

Don’t get me wrong—I am not advocating that we let go of all common education philosophy. To do so would be detrimental to students. Americans everywhere need to recognize, just as Thomas Jefferson did, that education should equip the individual “to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens… without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.” However, having a single primary arbitrator of these goals (the government) has led to a system where bureaucracy and politics has created numerous conflicts in what and how to teach, stifled the creativity necessary to address the rapidly-evolving economy, and disenfranchised parents in decision-making for their most valuable treasure—their kids.

Upon arriving at the American Enterprise Institute to, among other things, learn about education policy, I expected to hear that school choice is the sure-fire answer to a host of problems in the K-12 system. Instead, however, I began to realize the worrisome issues inherent in this reform’s current conception. I agree with Fredrick Hess when he says that “pro-market school reformers… have mistaken choice for competition.” School choice may create communities of like-minded educational leaders and families, but this environment will not be enough to evenly distribute educational success without real incentives for teachers and administrators to teach and lead more effectively.

An additional issue school competition could solve is increasing cost-efficiency. However, for this to happen, incentives would need to be given to parents for choosing lower-costing schools. Education savings accounts, an option where the government puts money into a flexible use spending account, could possibly help here. Parents with left over money in these accounts at the end of high school could potentially transfer the funds to the higher education institution chosen by their student.

The way the school choice debate is argued also must change. It can no longer be bogged down by the pursuit of mind-blowing statistics that back up charter schools or voucher systems’ supremacy in reading and math test scores over the current system. This is a consuming task that misses how these schools should be comparatively measured for improvements. For instance, school choice programs were shown to have a positive effect on racial segregation and civic values in a recent study by Greg Forster. Furthermore, a practical glance at how voucher systems and charter schools operate reveals that they are competing on unequal terms with district schools. They receive less funding and are still tied to inept bureaucracies. Instead of getting stuck in over-analyzation of the past, we need to look to the future. School choice has proven ingredients for success, and now states have the opportunity to get creative with the recipe and learn for themselves through action.

In the end, then, I heard a much broader message than an immediate mandate for school choice—it was an appeal to further debate, experimentation, and the fostering of an explorative community in pursuit of better school reform. If we agree that providing equal opportunity and dignity to families is a cornerstone of education, then giving them the ability to pick a school best-suited to their child’s needs and interests is certainly a step in the right direction. However, I now realize that school choice needs to be reimagined as well as implemented courageously in the pursuit of a brighter future generations of American leaders.

Like the great inventors that have come before us, we all need to evaluate our society and be inventive in our problem solving. However, we must not ignore pluralism and continue to fight for ideological supremacy. Our differences should be embraced in a way where human agency is honored and ideas are tested—the future of our country depends on it.