By Patrick B. McGuigan
Education is the source of personal reformation and the pathway to achievement of dreams. Throughout my carrer in writing, reporting and teaching, I have supported education reform in the broadest sense.
But after decades of observation and hoping against hope, I have lost all confidence that central planning and monopoly control will ever bring enough incremental boosts in knowledge to those who most need it, in the long run or even in stages.
Cultural challenges arose along with the collapse of family structure and functionality over the past seven decades. All along, the mainstream educational policy presumption remained: One or another set of small changes (always including more money) would improve public schools and what happens inside them.
Yes, individual students and particular teachers create arenas of adequacy or even excellence, and each of these deserve honor. But arenas of adequacy or excellence cannot overcome the problems of educational attainment America now faces.
How am I frustrated? Let us count the ways.
Nearly universal access to earlier and earlier formal education, pre-Kindergarten for all, per-pupil spending increases, curriculum “reform,” achievement grants, intensified teacher training, mandated nutrition improvements, direct subsidies and income transfers to individuals at or below average annual income levels, expanded school lunch programs, special recognition for those pockets of excellence, teacher pay hikes, Title I expansions, remedial reading and writing, STEM mandates, more and more online course offerings through public institutions, more and more standardized tests and linkage of testing instruments to curricula designed by academics – all of these and many more, some dreamed and the rest of us hoped, would provide better results and better lives for more children.
In one form or another, all these things were tried in Oklahoma, the vast majority of them with the sincere and informed support from most taxpayers and income generators, your humble servant included. The hope was that one or more of these would begin real change. But forgive those of us who have reluctantly concluded that in the end the reform waves were mere forms of perestroika, or glasnost. The appearance of change in the midst of sameness, additional bricks in the wall.
The time for real reform — school choice where students and parents, not bureaucrats, are in charge — is past due. No one reform step taken is a panacea, but freedom is the heart of the American message. Taken as a whole, freedom cannot be reconciled with monopoly.
A walk down memory lane: Those of us who worked so hard on Oklahoma City’s MAPS for Kids (and, for several years before that, Project KIDS) understood government school buildings were inadequate, facilities outdated, learning environments less than ideal. When we began our work, nearly two decades ago, it seemed that choice was a bridge too far.
Along with others, I settled for what was within reach: Better facilities. We hoped better buildings would buy time for better teaching and better communities to nurture children.
Yet, within days of passage of the MAPS for Kids referenda more than 13 years ago, came new claims that the most significant local-level tax increases for public education in Oklahoma history were mere window-dressing. Even after MAPS for Kids, the fundamental argument made by defenders of the old ways was that more money, never more freedom, was the ticket to the future.
Of all the varied reforms of the past seven decades, charter schools (only created in 1999) still bear promise. KIPP Preparatory on the east side of Oklahoma City is the best instance.
Stubborn as a Missouri mule, I still support incremental change, even the “tinkering” sort. Perhaps tinkerers can yet build better lives here and there, and in some cases expose more young people to the traditions that inform and undergird the American system.
But let’s be honest. A strong case can be made that the time for incremental action is over, even as we remain hopeful about pockets of excellence.
Until taxpayer resources follow individual students into the education setting that best meets particular needs, the glass of reform will half-empty, at best.
The time for school choice as Oklahoma’s central education policy is past due. I advocate choice not because I think any one step taken is a panacea, but because liberty is the heart of the American dream. That dream must belong to more, not fewer, of us.
If we would seek excellence and a brighter path for all our children, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic circumstances, if we desire liberty and justice for all, tear down the wall that keeps people locked in systemic failure. Tear down the walls that protect declining assumptions about whether or not children can learn.
As Ronald Reagan said at the Berlin Wall in 1987, “Beliefs become reality.” That is true, when belief is rooted in reality. Choose freedom over failure. Embrace the reality that freedom breeds excellence. Reject the dependence that breeds mediocrity.
Tear down that wall.
NOTE: This essay first appeared in the January 2015 edition of Perspective Magazine, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org). McGuigan, a certified public school teacher, presently at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy in Oklahoma City – is editor of CapitolBeatOk and publisher of The City Sentinel.