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The Unrepentant Traditionalist
February 19, 2009

A Counter-Reformation in Education
by Frank Creel

People have short memories. In a democracy, this can have severe consequences.

In the debate over President Obama’s plans to “reform” our national health care system, for example, no one is reminding the public how much better and less expensive health care was prior to President Johnson’s “reforms.”

Health care has been improved in recent decades, no doubt, by the strides of scientific discovery. Relatively speaking, however, the American health care system used to be the envy of the world, and it was accessible and affordable for most Americans. Now, in the Great Society bequeathed us by Johnson, cost containment, the detection of fraud and abuse, tort reform, and the burgeoning bureaucratization of the system’s public and private wings are major problems.

Our health care is still world class, but it is much more expensive than it used to be. The difference goes primarily to enrich larcenous physicians, sue-happy lawyers, and insurance companies — not to mention hospitals that need to cover the costs of caring for the uninsured and undocumented workers. How could it be otherwise with the Medicare and Medicaid pots o’ gold sitting out there tempting the greedy?

Giving responsibility for anything to bureaucrats almost always leads to a pressing need to give them more. Voters react enthusiastically to politicians promising change because they know things are a real mess. They forget, unfortunately, that it was previous generations of politicians promising change who caused the mess.

Our short memory affects other public issues, too. Take education.

Never in its existence has America been a country that short-changed education. Our founding fathers were the intellectual equals of Europe’s elites and, in retrospect, were much wiser than any of them. Teaching was always a noble and respected profession, and it usually went hand-in-hand with the country’s robust religious traditions. Literacy in New England at the time of the American Revolution is estimated to have been around 90 percent, largely because of the Puritan emphasis on Bible reading.

Now educators are concerned about the decline in American literacy, with good reason. Go to the American Literacy Council’s website and you will find spelling mistakes.

And it is not just literacy. Virtually everything worth knowing is readily available on the Internet. Still, large numbers of young Americans, probably a majority, cannot name the century of our civil war. At the higher end of our educational system, the United States used to supply the lion’s share of the world’s Nobel laureates, especially in the sciences. This is no longer the case.

The new Secretary of Education is Arne Duncan, who was running a mediocre educational establishment in President Obama’s home town of Chicago. Duncan co-captained his Harvard basketball team and played professionally in Australia. President Obama praised his jump shot when he announced Duncan's nomination.

Here is where the public’s short memory comes in. Our education system did not morph into an ongoing national crisis until after Jimmy Carter was inspired to create the U.S. Department of Education (ED) that Duncan heads. Currently, the ED budget totals almost $70 billion. That is not a lot by federal standards, but it still comes to more than half a million dollars for each of the approximately 125,000 public and private schools the ED assists. The problem with the ED, at any rate, is not how much money it wastes but how much harm it causes with its meddling and its mandates, most of which are unfunded headaches for school districts around the nation.

Ultimately, we can ease our way out of our national education crisis only by backing away from the “reforms” that caused it. First, the system must again be decentralized, which means abolishing the ED and returning the responsibility for educating our children to local funding jurisdictions, school districts, and parents.

Second, the stranglehold on education by teachers unions and their political representative, chiefly the National Education Association (NEA), must be broken. Abolishing the ED will be a huge step in this direction, because the department was a major player in the creation of that stranglehold.

Finally, and most important, teacher salaries must be made commensurate with those of other professional classes. The most talented of our young people flock to medicine, dentistry, law, architecture, engineering, and finance because they know success in those professions will enable them to have their BMWs, McMansions, and, of course, good schools for their kids.

How can local funding jurisdictions afford higher salaries for teachers? Primarily by abandoning the notion that smaller class size equates to better education. Allowing class size to grow and weeding out poor teachers would gradually enable the doubling of teacher salaries.

A recommendation for Secretary Duncan: Heave one from half court by winding down the ED, benching the NEA, and attracting to our kids’ classrooms the best talent that our society has to offer. That would be three points and nothing but net.

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The Unrepentant Traditionalist is copyright (c) 2009 by Frank Creel and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

Frank Creel, Ph.D., has been a columnist for the Potomac News, Woodbridge, Virginia. His op-ed articles have been published in the Northern Virginia Journal, the Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, and the New York City Tribune. In 1992, his A Trilogy of Sonnets was published pseudonymously by Christendom Press.

See a complete biographical sketch.

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