Education never figures big in presidential campaigns, but Donald Trump Jr. used it to fire a salvo during his speech at the Republican National Convention yesterday evening.
Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class, now they’re stalled on the ground floor. They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers, for the teachers and the administrators and not the students.
The mention of the Soviets triggered a memory for me, so I dug through the ancient scrolls of education thought and came up with this stuff that Trump Jr. or any RNC speaker could have used without controversy.
It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.
…schools would have to be free to try new ideas. So management would be required to waive all regulations that might keep schools from considering any and all promising changes – except of course for rules dealing with health, safety and civil rights. And unions would have to grant staffs the right to waive provisions of union contracts that get in their way. School boards would also be required to give each participating school total control over its budget. Since lots of central regulating would be eliminated, the central budget would shrink – which means lots more money to turn over to schools. Finally, since the participating schools would vary a good deal in what they were doing, school boards would have to permit parental choice.
…School staff would be united as a team. They’d read and try new methods. They’d make painful decisions they now avoid. If their math staff were weak, they might offer a higher salary to attract new talent. They’d shape up their weaker colleagues. They’d reach out to the community, explore technology. They’d focus on student learning.
…We’ve been running our schools as planned economies for so long that the notion of using incentives to drive schools to change may strike some people as too radical – even though that’s the way we do it in every other sector of society. But no law of nature says public schools have to be run like state-owned factories or bureaucracies. If the Soviet Union can begin to accept the importance of incentives to productivity, it is time for people in public education to do the same.
That’s all from the July 23, 1989 “Where We Stand” advertorial published in the New York Times by Al Shanker, legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker is no longer with us, which normally would bar his appearance on a convention stage, but he has the unique ability to speak to us from the Great Beyond. I wonder what he’d say?