In recently donating $100 million to allow 50,000 needy children to attend private school, investment banker Ted Forstmann and Wal-Mart executive John Walton will do far more to improve the education of inner-city youths than philanthropist Walter Annenberg's much-vaunted $500 million gift to public schools could ever do. To understand why is to understand the corrosive problem at the root of America's education policy.
In the age of instant gratification and inflated self-esteems, the cultural mantra of "bigger, better, faster, more" has guided government's approach to education. Per-pupil spending has increased five-fold since the 1950s, yet every quantifiable measure shows that the quality of education has plummeted.
Conventional wisdom during the past 40 years has been that spending more money, reducing class sizes and building pretty schools replete with newfangled technology are the cure-all solutions.
A lack of education spending has never been at the heart of schools' woes. It was only when we moved away from traditional teaching methods - where the teacher imparts wisdom and knowledge and the students learn, which has proven effective ever since ancient Greece - to the educational fad-of-the-week. Whether it's "new math" or "whole language" or "diversity training," our kids are the unfortunate guinea pigs in these most saddening and destructive experiments.
Despite Mr. Annenberg's incredible generosity, few students - if any - will benefit. Mr. Annenberg's grants come with some reform strings attached - which may be the program's only somewhat redeeming quality - but overall, the money has done little to change the inherently flawed structure of public schools.
Contrary to the popular theories espoused by the education elite, money is not a panacea. They claim that merely increasing salaries, lowering the student-to-teacher ratio, putting carpeting in the hallways, building new-age schools and introducing leftist propaganda - none of which comes cheap - will allow children to succeed. This failed formula explains why Americans fare worst among industrialized nations in standardized tests, but feel the best about how they did.
Public education, particularly in urban areas since the dawn of the welfare state in the 1960s, has evolved along the same philosophical lines: remove the family unit so as to maximize state control.
Teachers' unions vehemently oppose any and all reform efforts that seek to increase parental involvement. They actually believe they know better how to educate your child than you do. Not only is this supremely arrogant, it is dangerous.
The effort to remove families starts with curricula being set more by union bosses and state legislators than by parents. The overwhelming trend in public education has been to teach kids the secular, politically correct "virtues" of environmentalism, "safe sex," diversity and multiculturalism and inflated self-esteem-all at the expense of the three R's. Little Johnny in fifth grade is more likely to know how to put on a condom than how to spell it.
Our public schools are so busy trying to cure perceived social ills by turning out perfectly politically correct adults that they neglect imparting the skills kids need to become successful. The new pagan religion of liberalism has taken over: Honor thy grass and trees; thou shall have no other gods before the government; thou shall not use politically incorrect terms which could be construed as insensitive.
Where are the self-proclaimed protectors of children when America's kids, especially in urban areas, are mired in the learning-free vacuums that are our public schools? Unlike middle- and upper-class kids, many children trapped in inner-city schools aren't able to afford private school tuition. Without even the opportunity for a decent education, these children are doomed in an increasingly high-skilled economy.
How can we expect self-reliance at the same time we are denying inner-city youths the necessary opportunities to become fully capable members of society? School choice is not the sole solution, but it may be the most important one. Giving impoverished children the capability to escape the nightmare of public schools will not only create fantastic opportunities, but also shake up the governmental monopoly on education by injecting much needed competition.
Ted Forstmann and John Walton's generous donations to help 50,000 students
will hopefully be just the opening salvo in a national effort to improve
opportunities for all our children.
(Star Parker is director of the Coaliton on Urban Renewal and Education
and a member of the Project 21 black leadership network.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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