Fundamental principles of education reform

By Kelsey Winther

It is universally recognized that the education of children is of vital importance.  From genuine concern about future generations to a desire to sway the cultural and political direction of the nation, education is the key.

Since it plays such a vital role, nearly everyone has a say on the topic. Local school boards make decisions for the public schools within their jurisdiction, the boards of private schools affect curriculum and practices and the state and federal government attempt to regulate it all.

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has worked to improve educational options for families in Hawaii and has produced research to that end.  This article will take a step back and consider characteristics of sound education policy. Then, rather than evaluating each proposed change to education individually, we can simply assess if it advances or limits these standards.

1. Competition

Education is commodity in the marketplace. Often commodities are only thought of as physical goods but services function the exact same way.  There is a demand for someone to educate children and there are people and institutions willing to meet that demand. In a purely free market, this service would be priced according to the quality of the service together with the supply and demand for it.

There is, however, little room for competition in a state controlled system. Schools have no need to advertise themselves or prove to families that they are the best option for their children.  A school will continue to receive funding even if teachers are poor or children are failing.  There is no incentive to improve. For private educators, there is an incentive to offer quality education because of the presence of competition. A private school will need to prove that it has well qualified teachers, that it instructs students in the proper material and that it prepares them for their life ahead.

At present, about 90% of children are in a public school, creating a virtual monopoly by the state on education. Any increase in education alternatives will be a positive for all children.  If parents begin moving children out of traditional public schools into a charter school or a private option, the school will lose money. This creates a market incentive for the school to improve.

2. Decentralized Control

Public education is not new to the United States or to Hawaii.  The eastern states begin to create schools that were “public” shortly after independence was achieved.  In Hawaii, Kamehameha III is credited with starting the public education system in 1840.  Historically, education, though government controlled, was locally controlled. There was no federally-controlled curriculum or standards.  Greater federal control has been sold to the American people under the disguise of improving accountability and trying to raise test scores.  Yet, greater control from Washington D.C. has only done the opposite.  Centralized control is not a prerequisite for quality education. Local communities can and will demand high standards while at the same time directing the education of their students.

Clearly private education (religious, secular or home) is the best example of decentralized control.  In these settings, parents have total control over where their children attend, can affect decisions in these institutions and ultimately leave if what is being taught is not desirable to them.

Yet, the current system of education in the United States is necessary to ensure the growth and supremacy of the Federal Government.  Universal and centralized education is anathema to a free and independent people.  Recent efforts like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core are all key factors in centralizing education.

3. Individualized Attention

Ever since players like Horace Mann and John Dewey begin to influence America’s education system there has been a specific agenda. The goal is to introduce democracy to children at an early age. As Americans we tend to think of democracy as a positive. The idea of Mann and Dewey, however, is not equal rights or equal opportunity for each child, but equal outcome. An example of this is group projects. They function as a form of socialism. If the top student in the class and the bottom student in the class are in the same group, they both get the same grade. Assignments like this tend to have a marginalizing effect on all students.

Educational alternatives can focus more on the needs of individual students, than national, government created, standards.  Students with special abilities or interest should be permitted to pursue study in their strengths. Likewise, students with particular weaknesses need special attention to grow in those areas. The problem with the state system is that it assumes a universal standard for all students to achieve without regard for any other factors.

In addition to increasing access to education, King Kamehameha III had a desire to preserve the cultural uniqueness of the Hawaiian Islands while introducing liberalizing reforms. He gave the people a constitution that included a bills of rights and allowed commoners and foreigners to own land. The example that Kamehameha III set should be applied to education. Hawaii should retain its cultural uniqueness by holding on to local control of education while at the same time improving opportunities and freedom for all by permitting competition that will improve educational quality.

Kelsey Winther is a former Summer Policy Fellow at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

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