Every child in America has the right to a free, quality education, Right? After all, do we not have a law called “No Child Left Behind?”
Many of my teacher friends know that my wife and I are hosting a foreign exchange student this year. She is a delightful young lady from the Republic of Korea who likes to be called, Betsy.
On our way home from school one day recently, Betsy was asking me questions about the meaning of various English phrases. Question after question after question… “Oh!” she would say in response to each answer, followed immediately thereafter by another question.
Growing weary of being the constant respondent, I asked, “So, Betsy, tell me, what do you think of American schools?”
“Um… American schools very different… better… everything in America is better.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes, schools very nice. Teachers all very good and very… kind… but…”
“But what, Betsy?”
“American students not so kind… they make it… um… difficult.”
How very astute, I thought. It takes a sixteen year-old girl from a foreign country, after less than two weeks attending classes in an American public school, to put her finger right where it sores the most.
Thinking about this, I remembered having heard our principal, a fine, well-liked, professional educator in his own right, tell the young people at our school on many occassions that they have no special rights as students, save for the right to a quality education. Now, in all fairness, I’m sure that he believes this. Hey… I believed it too until doing a little research on the subject. I’m sorry to have to say that it simply is not true.
If it were true, the state would be compelled by law to make sure that every young person could graduate from high school with a diploma, or at least finish with a certificate of completion and trade skills of some kind. If it were true, with things as they are, millions of parents would be suing school districts all across the country because we are not meeting the educational needs of all — not in Texas, not in Utah, not even in states like California where teachers are paid the highest salaries. If it were true, we would have to have many, many more special education teachers in public schools, and ten times as many bilingual teachers in Texas would not suffice. If it were true, public education would cost taxpayers a great deal more, and teachers wouldn’t have class- rooms filled with special needs students and English as a Second Language students trying to keep up with gifted, talented, and highly motivated students sitting right next to them. If it were true, we would be more worried about each young person learning as much as they can, according to each student’s individual gifts and interests, rather than worrying about whether they can all be made to squeeze through the same academic sieve in the same way and in the same amount of time.
Truth is, none of us is created equal, and none of us has the right to a free, quality education — not in the good ole U.S. of A. Education in the United States, contrary to the beliefs of many, is not one of our freedoms under the Constitution or any state law, neither is free access to it. Provisions of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 do prohibit discrimination by states in the manner by which edu- cation is provided. But it is not a right. Rather, it is a privilege that is given according our our states’ various priorities and resources.
I made this connection after Betsy’s comment because I recently read where the Washington, DC city council has declined to pass a measure called the DC Education Rights Charter Amendment. This amendment would have added to the city’s essential governing charter the requirement to provide a “free, high-quality education” to all citizens.
Now, why do you suppose they declined to pass such an amend- ment? Sounds like a good thing to me, “a free, high-quality education.” It’s something most of us think our kids all have coming to them, considering all the tax dollars that we give to our states, ostensibly, on it’s behalf. But what would politicians really do by passing such a mandate, a mandate that says that the same public schools that they say are failing today shall, by their decree, hereby instantly provide a free, high-quality education? Well, it would certainly launch a million lawsuits. Today’s lack of quality public education would become actionable.
But lawsuits forcing even higher taxes won’t solve a problem that’s even more basic than school budgets. The problem isn’t about money, folks, nor do I believe it’s about the lack of quality, dedicated teachers. The problem is about apathy, especially among our kids from lower income households. And I’m not just talking about African American and Hispanic students either, although they do seem to be afflicted with this more than European and Asian American students. Many students from lower income families, not all mind you but many, simply enter the system with low expectations for success and, over time, validate their reckoning.
So, where have we gone wrong? Well, maybe it’s time for legis- lators, parents, and the courts to back off from integration and pro-inclusion mandates that do nothing to motivate slower students to try harder. All they do is squash young people’s self esteem and distract the otherwise self-confident, highly motivated students.
Maybe Betsy’s got something. Maybe, just maybe it’s time to let teachers, administrators and educational counselors start making class placement decisions based on students’ needs and teachers’ special gifts and qualifications. One size, after all, never did fit all.
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