Public education is mirroring American society overall: a tiny island of haves surrounded by a vast ocean of have-nots.
For worried parents and students, the good news is that public education has become a campaign issue. Mitt Romney is pushing a warmed-over version of the old GOP school voucher scheme. The trouble with vouchers, experts say, is that allowing parents to withdraw kids from "failing schools" deprives cash-starved schools of funds, leading to a "winner takes all" sweepstakes that widens the gap between the best and worst schools. Critics--liberals and libertarians--also dislike vouchers because they allow the transfer of tax dollars into the coffers of private schools, many of which have religious, non-secular curricula unaccountable to regulators.
Both parties are missing the mark. Republicans want to gut public schools by slashing budgets that will lead to bigger class sizes, which will reduce the individual attention. Democrats rightly oppose educational austerity, but are running a lame defense rather than aggressively promoting positive ideas to improve the system. Both parties are too interested in weakening unions and grading teacher performance with endless tests, and not enough in raising salaries so teaching attracts the brightest college graduates.
Is the system in crisis? Yes, said respondents to a 2011 Gallup-Phi Delta Kappa poll, which found that only 22 percent approved of the state of public education in the United States. The No. 1 problem? Not enough funding.
According to Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, one of the world's leading experts on comparing public school systems, the United States is falling rapidly behind other countries. In Canada, an average 15-year-old is a full year ahead of his or her American counterpart, he told a 2010 Congressional inquiry. The U.S. high-school completion rate is ranked 25th out of the 30 OECD countries.
The elephant in the room is to replace localized control of education with centralized federal control, as is common around the world.
Why run public schools out of Washington, D.C.? When schools in rich districts get the same resource allocation per student as those in poor ones, influential voters tend to push for increased spending of education. Centralized control also eliminates embarrassing situations like when the Kansas School Board eliminated teaching evolution in its schools, effectively reducing standards.
A streamlined curriculum creates smarter students. It's easier for Americans, who live in a highly mobile society, to transfer their children midyear from school to school. Many students, especially among the working poor, suffer lower grades due to transiency.
Of course, true education reform would need to abolish the ability of parents to opt out of the public school system. That means banning private education and the class segregation we see today, particularly in big cities, and integrating the 5.3 million kids (just less than 10 percent of the total) into their local public systems. Decades after forced busing, many students attend schools as racially separated as those of the Jim Crow era.
If we're to live in a true democracy, all of our kids have to attend the same schools.