We have quality problems with our Education Establishment; our students are 23rd in science and 31st in mathematics out of 40 nations in tests given every three years to 15 year olds in 60 industrialized countries.
Today, many of our youngsters are not competing with students in the next district or state, but with students from Taiwan, South Korea, Finland, the Netherlands and many other nations. It is self delusion to say “our schools are the best.” It just isn’t so.
We also now have some populations – American Indians on reservations, African-Americans in inner cities, Hispanics with limited English – not coping well with our “establishment.” We also have some children leaving grade schools unable to read, write and calculate, and high school graduates needing remedial help for college.
The problem isn’t inept or uncaring people in the “establishment.” In my opinion the problem is that our public schools educating the big majority (about 90 percent) of our youngsters are essentially a monopoly. Absent competition and over time, monopolies seek benefits for themselves rather than for “customers” and can ignore challenges.
To regain parental control of education, parents need an ability to use alternative schools. Along with tax support of public schools, we should seek competition by tax support not only for charter schools, but with partial support to parents using private schools, church-affiliated schools, other independent, including for-profit schools and for home schooling.
Competition works elsewhere in our nation; it will work in education. If parents have a problem, self interest by staff in a school will prompt correction if parents have practical access to and can change to use an alternative school.
This happens now for parents currently using alternatives, as parochial schools. Problems are addressed soon lest the parent transfer the child to the “free” public school. But a parent currently using a public school has little help from competition, and has a big financial burden in a change to any alternative school.
We already support charter schools in Illinois; we need more. Other states, as Wisconsin, provide voucher programs to parents for alternative schools. In Illinois we have had and do now have voucher proposals for assisting parents to move from a poor performing public school to an alternative school. Other states have tax credits for expenses incurred in use of alternative schools.
We don’t now have enough alternative schools in Illinois to readily provide competition. We would need more charter schools and, I would soon expect, more church-affiliated schools. Church-affiliated organizations all over the world and in the United States have a long history of starting and maintaining elementary and secondary schools, and colleges or universities. We should use that expertise.
Many other nations provide financial support to parents or to the alternatives of their “government” schools. Some, as Australia, the Netherlands and Sweden provide equal funding for both types of schools. Sweden even provides funding to “for-profit” schools. In Australia with equal support it seems about half of children attend “government” school and half attend some type of alternative school.
The costs to parents today of most alternative schools limit their use to the dedicated or well-off parent. Any tax supported financial support in any alternatives should be less (say 75 percent to 85 percent of) than the average support provided per student in “government” schools. Parents using alternatives should have skin in the game. A lower parent cost, than the present use of alternative schools would lead to more use of these already lower-cost schools. This could permit tax savings as more and more children transfer into alternative schools and as the Education Establishment became more cost conscious – because most alternatives would do quite well with lesser support.
Where there is any tax support of students in any school, public or alternative, annual independent testing to insure that students are being educated up to their ability is a valid interest of the parents and of the state to be widely reported.
Most parents today will not “demonstrate” for change and can’t donate enough campaign cash to get any legislator’s attention. However, some parents do recognize that other nations do have better education systems and almost all parents do recognize that “wait lists” for charter schools are nonsense and that not providing vouchers for at-risk children to leave poor public schools isn’t productive.
We have a long, long history in this nation of “creative tension” about educating our youngsters. Right now we don’t have the best value or the best quality schools in the world.
Other individuals have different evaluations and have proposals other than mine and it’s time we have some more “creative tension” to work it all out and to solve it.
We can make changes. After all, there are many, many more parent voters than members of the Education Establishment for the Illinois legislators to consider – it’s time to start.
James L. Keen is a Riverside resident and a former member of the Riverside-Brookfield High School Board of Education.