Few issues are as politicized and utilitarian as public education. That’s unfortunate. There is no lack of energy poured into the debate over school funding, teacher pay, and the level of federal involvement.
A recent example of the division in North Carolina occurred during a meeting of the State Board of Education on January 27, where Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson pushed back against proposed curriculum changes oriented toward more instruction on systemic racism and critical race theory. “I don’t think they’re for the benefit of the students. I think they’re for the benefit of those who have a political agenda,” Robinson said.
The concern is a valid one. Are we merely training up kids to believe our country is fundamentally flawed or irredeemably racist? Undoubtedly, these conversations are likely to charge up both the right and left.
Yet, many of those discussions hardly touch on the deeper purpose of education that transforms the life of the individual and community. Political warfare and policy discussions are important, but a true educational renaissance requires cultural transformation.
Despite all the negatives and general chaos, Covid-19 is playing a significant role in renewed debates about not only important policy questions but the purpose of education. This resembles the economic theory of creative destruction, which dismantles long-standing practices in favor of forward-thinking innovation. When something is broken or not meeting a need in the market, like a lot of education today, something else emerges to replace it.
The suspension of in-person learning and families being inconvenienced are already pushing many parents to rethink a static education model. Simply put, families are forced to be proactive when the bureaucratic and politicized flaws become paralyzing to their lives.
The continued explosion of homeschooling is a reminder that not all is well with public education. Unsurprisingly, learning more akin to a one-size-fits-all model is far from ideal for many families today. Nowhere is this more evident than North Carolina, where last year 8.4% of families had homeschooled students in the household. Counting the percentage of the school-age population, no other state has a larger homeschool contingent than North Carolina. Those stats will undoubtedly increase in the midst of continued frustration with shuttered classrooms.
The political agenda of many administrators and bureaucrats only exacerbates demands for more schooling options. In his meeting with the education board, Robinson suggested too that introducing critical race theory to second-graders, many of who are not reading at grade level, is not a good use of educational resources. As more and more of society becomes politicized, institutions suffer, including those geared toward instruction.
It’s no surprise that we live in an increasingly pluralistic society. Not every society is white, middle class, and suburban; the common image of many American families in 1950s television. Most families want the education of their children to reflect their values, whether they be oriented toward a deeper moral and religious formation, an emphasis on classical learning, or exposure to more diverse or politically progressive styles of instruction.
Throughout the centuries, there have been varying debates and definitions on the purpose of education. Admiral James Stockdale, one of America’s greatest heroes, reflected the Stoics and a greater need for character building when he said, “The challenge of education is not to prepare people for success but to prepare them for failure.” The English poet John Milton believed that education was primarily about knowing God, which in turn not only raises the individual person but elevates all of humanity. The philosopher John Locke believed that recreation (play) and teaching virtues are essential elements for instructing children. North Carolina sees the purpose of education as being something that should be more oriented toward vocational readiness.
Whatever a family believes, school choice is an important instrument for empowering parents to take even greater ownership in the purpose and meaning of education. The static education models are no longer enough for our diverse society.
After all, merely increasing spending already shows little to no improvement in educational outcomes. National School Choice Week is another reminder that the purpose of education is not an obligation of the state to deal with, merely telling us when and where to show up. Learning is much more complex and enriching than that and is guaranteed to flourish under the conditions of more freedom and choice.
Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor.