Today’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Donna Martinez, associate editor of Carolina Journal.
Getting heckled during a speech is never fun. But recently, when 300 or so Cary Academy high school students jeered my comments about the need to bust up the government’s K-12 education monopoly, I wasn’t troubled by their boos and arm-waving. I was alarmed by their thinking.
Some of the brightest, most privileged North Carolina teens attending a prestigious private school have completely accepted the notion of government control and limits over a fundamental and determinant factor of life – basic education. It seemed lost on them that their families have escaped the very boundaries they so passionately defend and expect others to embrace – others, but not them.
The point I argued that day was simple: all families, regardless of wealth, should have the same opportunity to attend a school of their choice, funded with the existing tax dollars we already funnel to education. The money would follow the student to his or her school. No doubt many would select their existing traditional public school. But others would look for options and find what works best for them, not the one-size-fits-all school system. Only to a bureaucrat intent on retaining power and money is the thought of giving customers what they want a threatening idea.
It is mystifying why we expect to choose a pre-school or a college, yet roll over on the most consequential years of a child’s life. Imagine your outrage if a landscaper, or a hair dresser, or a plumber refused to rectify your dissatisfaction with his service by telling you that since other people like the work, you should, too.
Imagine your reaction if the state exacted food dollars from you and then dictated where you could buy groceries. It would ignore where you live, prevent you from having access to the types and brands of food you prefer or the employees you trust and like, and force you to buy pre-packaged portions of meat, produce, and dairy products. You would see the regulations as an absurd restriction on your freedom and your ability to make informed decisions.
If the government system is a model deserving of spirited defense and ever increasing federal, state, and local tax dollars, then why did Cary Academy families—and families of every other private, parochial, or home school—opt out?
For some, it’s the continual disruption of frequent reassignments, whether to accommodate growth or diversity goals associated with mixing kids from low-income families with kids from the middle and upper classes. For others, it’s disagreement with a curriculum that doesn’t reflect their social, political, or religious values, or simply isn’t as broad or focused as they believe it should be. For minority families, it is the persistent achievement gap between whites and kids of color. Others are bothered by teachers and administrators who, year after year, complain about their work environment rather than champion a merit pay system that would reward those who deliver results and penalize those who don’t.
But to me, the most glaring example of the public system’s failure is this state’s abysmal high school graduation rate. Little more than 60 percent of teens entering a North Carolina high school will leave with a diploma four years later. Earning a diploma is a major factor in whether a person becomes a productive, taxpaying member of society or is dependent on the social safety net. Even in Wake County, a school system touted by many as a national model of success, the five-year graduation rate for African-American males entering the system in 1998 was just 68 percent. And that’s an improvement over years past. We should be ashamed of these statistics. But instead, supporters of the status quo defend the results of the monopoly system and dismiss as elitists or dreamers those of us who expect a better outcome.
You may disagree with why a family wants out of the public system. You may think their standards are unreasonable. You may even think they’re impossible to please. And you may be right. But that should be their choice — and yes, even their mistake—to make. Not mine. Not yours. And certainly not the government’s.