Opinion: Parents demand action on school reform

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It took COVID-19 for many Americans to start paying closer attention to public education in America, and a growing number have been troubled by what they’ve seen. Whether it’s a video telling kindergarteners that “sometimes doctors make mistakes” about gender assignments at birth, or simply whether the curricula are really preparing our children for the challenges – and jobs – of tomorrow, questions about how we teach our children have rightfully taken center stage.

The need for reform is urgent.

In one middle school in Gorham, instances of disruptive behavior went up an eye-popping 33% last year. Angry parents are getting involved like never before. And the U.S. Supreme Court had to strike down a Maine law prohibiting parents in districts unserved by public schools from using a tuition assistance program to send their children to faith-based schools.

It’s not just Maine. Last November, voters in Virginia chose Republican Gov. Glen Youngkin in large part because of how the Loudon County schools mishandled a case of sexual violence. Seeing the father of the victim frog-marched out of a school board meeting by security guards shocked the conscience of Virginians in what probably was a bellwether election.

When you add the horrific element of continued school massacres, such as the one in Uvalde, Texas, anxiety about safety in school – by students and parents – mounts. As a retired Navy SEAL, I am aware of our capacities to protect key assets abroad. Shouldn’t even more precious ones at home be better protected? As a result of watching an active shooter drill at my kids’ school, I volunteered to be a reserve deputy sheriff in Lincoln County so I could apply my skill set to local law enforcement.

We need to bolster school security in a smart and systematic way. This is a public safety issue as opposed to an educational one. On a separate track, educators, together with law enforcement and mental health experts, should come together and agree on a smarter way to enhance the safety of schools.

Getting back to the basics, Americans are hungry for solutions when it comes to what and how we teach in public schools. There is little doubt that teachers are heroes given how much they do with relatively little. How do we equip them better without seeing any gains gobbled up by administration or bureaucracy?

Other than providing resources when states fall short, my general sense is the less Washington D.C. is involved in our country’s schools, the better. Since federalizing education in 1979, research points to decreased – not improved – performance by American schools. Some have talked about dismantling the U.S. Department of Education, but I’d like to see a forensic audit of what it does effectively first. Doing the same old thing and expecting a different result is no longer an acceptable strategy.

As a parent, I see school choice as a way to raise the bar for everyone. It should come as no surprise that it enjoys the most intense support in the most troubled school districts in America. When districts have real incentives to be best, performances will rise.

Compared to others countries, we are squarely in the middle of the pack when it comes to math and science. This is a huge problem for a country as invested in technology as we are. Do we have our priorities in order? The fact is, in a country as large and diverse as ours, the communities themselves know best what our children need to think critically and develop the skills that will grant them access to the high-paying jobs of the future.

If Washington can help our local school teach kids to launch space shuttles and re-engineer crumbling infrastructure and broken logistical chains, I would be all for that. But based on what Washington schools did to their own young, energetic and reform-minded chancellor fifteen years ago, the place offers little in terms of useful role models. The power of the unions trounces choice, local control and results-based measures every step of the way.

It’s past time for bold reform. Students deserve it and parents are demanding it. We must start holding the all-powerful unions accountable. By raising the standards of education, we would be serving teachers better than their own unions do. Now that COVID-19 is no longer the predominant issue of the day and its emergency status has been lifted, any reason for delaying long overdue reforms has now vanished into thin air.

Let’s tackle education reform as if our children’s futures depended on it. Because, naturally, they do.

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