Never in our history has our country seemed in so much decline: our schools are failing; our economy is in a perilous condition; our global influence is diminishing, caught in the headwind between a rising East and a declining West. What was once the dawn of a continuing era in the new millennia, now is a dream slowly slipping through our grip. Decades of malfeasance, neglect, and complacency have brought us to this situation in which nearly half of all Americans believe that China is the number one economic power. Jobs have left that will no longer return, our educational ranking falls precipitously year by year, countless domestic and foreign commitments have seen our debt increase so dramatically that some wonder whether we will be able to fulfill our promises at all.
A litany of objections now seem to have caught up with us; our decline is no longer theoretical but rather an ever increasing day-to-day reality. While the media and politicians have slowly acknowledged this decline, they have touched on a subject that is very close to my heart and certainly the cornerstone of any future success we might have as a country. As a person that comes from a family of modest means, education has always been the key to reach the next step, the next level in our progression as an immigrant family. Indeed, as a student of this university, I am even more respectful of the fact that a higher education is the only way out of an unexceptional, ordinary life. It was not until a few years after high school though, after reading an article written by Milton Friedman, that I soon realized that my own education and experiences in the public school system were not as normal as I had thought.
I will not delve into the details of my own encounters, only to say that my secondary education was racked by a school plagued by violence and racial tensions. What I believed to be the normal state of affairs for every high school were indeed the product of a dismal school. When Friedman spoke of the results of failing government schools, it was as though he was speaking directly to me. He described a pattern that arose from these schools, a pattern of high dropout rates, low performance, violence, and demoralized students and teachers. Without a doubt, all those points were a presence at my school. People were dropping out, friends were failing classes, violence was pervasive, and all of this created an atmosphere in which students did not want to learn and teachers did not want to teach. Maybe I was too young to notice, but now I am well aware and have felt the true costs first hand of these failing institutions.
While Friedman’s pleas to transform our school system through a voucher program have largely gone unheeded, our rankings in reading, math and science have all dropped significantly. We are 14th in reading skills, 25th in math, and 17th in science according to the three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment report that came out in December. I am not only convinced but devoted to the fact that our public schools are inherently and structurally fraught. There is no fixing them until a complete overhaul of the way our school systems are run that any true progression in educational achievements will arise.
No, the “Race to the Top” program is not the answer, nor was “No Child Left Behind.” Neither is “accelerated learning” (whatever that means), or longer school days. Paying kids to attend class won’t solve a thing and neither is any attempt to curb truancy. Building a food garden is nice, but generally useless, and spending more on schools while getting less is a tired exercise in futility. The only true path to bettering our public school system is a simple but somehow controversial concept, the concept being that of choice. As it stands, those not privileged enough to live in the high income suburbs of well to do communities are destined, if not confined, to deteriorating schools that put them at a disadvantage even before they attend their first class. And somehow, oblivious to all those concerned, is the fact that minorities are the ones that suffers the worst. The one amazing fact about this country is that we are not as class conscious as other older, industrialized countries; the reason being is the astonishing rate of high upward mobility. The one saving grace to all those who are born poor is that there is a chance, a fighting chance that if you work hard enough, your children will not be.
The only way, however, to achieve this upward mobility is through the path of higher education. High school grads earn significantly less than those with a college diploma, yet our schools are so horrendous that even attainting a high school diploma is a challenge all its own. The term “drop out factories” is still part of our dialogue. Some of the largest cities in the nation have a graduation rate of less than 50 percent. In our own state of California, the prognosis is even worse. California routinely ranks in the bottom of the list in comparison to other states in regards to reading and math. The saddest part is that minorities in this state rank in the bottom of the bottom of the list.
Some have called this the greatest civil rights issues of our time and I tend to agree. It is a disgrace that we are letting this happen, an outright shame. Let parents choose what is right for their children, be it a private institution or public. The day we let parents choose which school they would like their child to attend is the day true accountability is established. The day we let choice prevail is the day when the playing field, regardless of race or income, is finally equaled. Our educational system was once the envy of the world, and I believe it still can be. To truly excel and remain a world power, we must be. To stop the decline we must first and foremost transform our schools; there is simply no other way out.
Fred is a senior in Warren College majoring in Political Science.