Friday, July 23, 2010

Public education… "right" or "requirement"?

Say the words “public education” out loud, especially in a room full of parents of school-aged children, and you will see reactions as varied as the colors of a sunset. Some faces will light up with thankfulness that for at least nine months out of the year, the kiddos are out of the house and under some other assumingly-competent adult’s supervision for at least six hours of every day. Other faces will sort of crinkle inward in thought as the owner of said face ponders the deeper questions of, “which school is the best for little Johnny”, and “is public school the best or should I fork out the money for private school?”. Still others will drag out their carefully concealed soapboxes to shout forth the wondrous benefits and life-changing blessings of home or independent schooling, while another camp will simply roll their eyes toward the ceiling in a doleful look that conveys, “Oh boy, here we go again…did I even bring my soapbox with me? Or do I even care to argue this point yet again?”.

So, while the arrows fly and the wounded fall, the issue of the “best” way to educate our children remains hotly debated. At stake is not only the education of our precious offspring, but also our precious reputations as parents because, if we are honest about it, part of our concern with the entire matter is that we be seen as responsible, loving parents who make wise choices for our children and do whatever is the absolute best for them. We not only want Little Johnny to be able to read “see Spot run” right on time with all the other first-graders, we want little Johnny to have the opportunity to prove his superiority in the gene pool by mastering his multiplication tables by the age of six and moving on to high school algebra long before he graduates from the sixth grade. Of course, if he is also reciting Shakespeare and designing hot new video game programs in junior high, that would be a bonus, too…anything to make us look like intelligent, well-rounded parents providing every opportunity for our children’s education. If Little Johnny manages to convince our peers that we have some particular mastery in the art of parenting due to his personal achievements, that’s just a bonus feather in our cap.

Thankfully, here in America Little Johnny will have every opportunity to acquire at least a basic education. In past centuries, his opportunities would have lay at the mercy of whether his parent’s income was sufficient to pay for private schooling or tutoring, but today Little Johnny is blessed to have the American Education Association in his corner, assuring that he not miss out on vital learning. Thank goodness. He will be presented with phonics lessons that will help him to learn to read proficiently; math lessons that will help him to manage numbers, budgeting, and balancing a checkbook; writing skills that will enable him to fill out job applications or write captivating articles as a journalist; not to mention the time-honored skills of simply showing up on time for classes, following directions, turning in assignments on time without excuses, listening and paying attention (hopefully), and respect for authority. But wait! There’s more! Little Johnny’s blessings of public education do not stop there! Oh no, he has only begun to learn.

Next on Little Johnny’s educational agenda will be a class called “Boundaries of Parental Authority”. This is where he will learn all about what his parents are and are not allowed to do in their practices of raising him to adulthood. He will come away understanding that no, he does not have to do what his parents tell him to do if he does not agree with their directives, because he is entitled to his own opinions and the creative expression thereof and it is actually “abusive” of his parents to attempt to channel his personal beliefs in a direction that complements their own. He will learn that attempts by his parents to admonish or punish him for misbehavior or breaking of rules can be considered to be “controlling” or “harsh”, and thus he merely has to threaten to alert the authorities and he will get his way. But still the blessing of public education does not end…

Next on the agenda is “Realistic Sexual Expectations” class. Never mind that Little Johnny may only be in the third grade at this point, it is deemed necessary that he learn very early on exactly how to express himself sexually in a manner that avoids disease transmission and/or personal injury. He will be instructed, with the help of plaster models and donated supplies, in the fine art of applying a condom just in case he finds himself in the position of enjoying a sexual encounter (which seems like an odd activity for a third-grader to stumble across, but hey, “preparation” is one of the keys to safe sex, right?). He will be given contact information for such organizations as Planned Parenthood and advised that he may speak with a counselor at any time without his parents being informed about the conversation. Thank goodness such counseling is available from the learned elite who have a personal vested interest in Little Johnny’s physical and emotional well-being! Without such resources he would likely have to fall back on discussing such weighty matters with…egads…his parents. Remember, those individuals who care for him every day, feed him, remind him to take his bath, make sure that he washes behind his ears, and who will bear the cost of his decisions – whether wise or unwise – throughout the span of his juvenile years until he is an adult? They remain responsible for him even as others take liberties to share their opinions and agendas with Little Johnny outside of Mom and/or Dad’s earshot. Parenting isn’t for sissies, it never has been. But these days there is a “defensive mode” associated with raising children that did not exist prior to public schools overstepping their bounds from the arena of providing a basic intellectual education to shaping the morals, behavior, and personal philosophies of our nation’s young…with or without the blessing of our nation’s parents.

So, is public education as a concept incorrigibly corrupt and in need of being taken out with this week’s trash? Certainly not. In many areas of the world today, even a basic education is beyond the reach of average citizens due to prohibitive cost or geographical barriers. Children in such societies may reach adulthood barely able to read at all, and equipped for only the most menial of employment with little to no hope of future advancement or opportunities for enrichment. In some societies, only the social or economic elite receive any educational opportunities whatsoever, causing a wide chasm between the lower, uneducated classes and the upper, wealthy classes. Essentially, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer because of a simple lack of educational avenues for common citizens to expand their own horizons.

In the U.S., public schools were founded in order to break the cycle of ignorance and to afford all children the opportunity to acquire at least a basic education that would equip them for life as an adult. (It can be argued that a K-12 education does not afford such ability in and of itself, but that a college degree is now required for someone to truly be ready for successful life in American culture. The discussion of the necessity of a college education is an interesting one, but is beyond the scope of this writing.) Thankfully, all American children are eligible for entry into public school, so no child in this fair land need approach adulthood illiterate or unable to balance a checkbook. Billions of tax dollars each year support our country’s public school system, in addition to the countless levies and fund-raisers routinely held to cover the cost of items that somehow slip through the cracks…things like textbooks, computers, writing materials, and those really important plaster models for the students to practice on.

Well, what’s the problem, then? It sounds like the system is working as well as can be expected in this modern age and we don’t have too much to complain about, right? Not until you try to exercise your right to not have your child educated in the public school system. Unfortunately, what was once offered as a privilege has now become a requirement about which parents have little choice other than to place their children in costly private schools wherein they might (emphasis on “might”) have more say in the curriculum and teacher/student influence. Many families choose home-based education either independently or through distance learning programs offered at all grade/age levels. Depending on individual state laws, even where home schooling is permitted, parents are often forced to comply with a state-approved curriculum mirroring the very materials to which they are trying to avoid their children’s exposure. They also may be forced to document the same number of hours spent by their children in studying various subjects throughout the day as compared to their public school peers, even though the same amount of time is not required to teach a classroom of one or two or three as opposed to teaching a classroom of thirty or more students. The reasoning behind these requirements is quite simple: The raising and educating of our children is deemed to be beyond the expertise of the average parent, tasks which we cannot safely tend to on our own without government interference regulating the ways in which we care for our own families. The U. S. government believes that they are ultimately responsible for our children, hence they should make the decisions that influence the moral and intellectual development of each child. In a sense, the government has stepped into the role of “parent” by usurping parental authority in the home and placing requirements on American families that could result in having children removed from the home and/or parents facing criminal charges if those requirements are not met. At some point “Big Brother” became “Big Daddy” when no one was looking, and Americans seem to be stuck with this new branch in the family tree.

The solution to this moral/educational conundrum just might seem to be beyond the reach of parents as we ponder the question of, “What the heck do I do now?”. But fear not…the answer is simple! All that is needed is for the U.S. government to step back and accept that they have no business interfering in American families, the National Education Association needs to stop treating parents like idiots who only know how to produce children but who are incapable of raising them, and the basic responsibility of educating and providing for children should be restored without question to their parents…not Planned Parenthood, not the local school board, and certainly not the U.S. government. Sound a bit simplistic? Perhaps. But remember that “freedom” is a principle upon which our nation was founded. It seems reasonable that such principles should remain the bedrock upon which we build a strong and independent country, comprised of citizens who have learned how to think for themselves and who are well established in nurturing families who give stability and security to their ventures. One need only look at the failures of government policy and practices to realize that entrusting them to be the ultimate authority regarding our children’s futures might not be the grandest of ideas.

Personally, I believe that public education is ultimately a blessing in that it ensures that no American child is forced to miss out completely on at least a basic education. But it seems to me that we are witnessing a situation of “the good being the enemy of the best”. Parents should have the final say regarding the education of their own children. Period.

After all, this is Amerika…oops, I mean America…right?

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