Newsletter: Common Core Restarts the Discussion

November 5, 2013

Resolved: That all Indiana students should receive the best possible education.

The problem is that this obviously worthy goal is pursued at the statehouse with a failed assumption — that our school districts operate the same way, apply the same standards with the same parental support, all with the same bureaucratic apparatus supervising the same assembly line of interchangeable teachers.

That all is a figment of John Dewey’s imagination. As such, it is being exposed by the Common Core debate. Indeed, state Sen. Scott Schneider and Hoosiers Against Common Core are doing something remarkable. For the first time in 20 years, public attention is focused on how the education system works rather than how educats want you to think it works.

In so doing, opponents of Common Core have won the debate over applying national standards to individual Indiana school districts. To actually change anything, however, they must defeat the chimera that is the Indiana Department of Education.

Standardization, even in the name of civil rights or scholastic rating, national or local, with every promise of common goodness implied, has two dangerous outriders — legalese and bureaucracy. They codify false hope and promise.

Because it is written somewhere in Indianapolis, because it is law, we are expected to believe that our districts and schools are equal. We are told that our budgets are applied with the same effect for every student of every race, family background and income level; that union membership and academic credentials ensure that the best teachers are rewarded and the worst ones discouraged; and that our students with equal and innate abilities graduate with equal and actual prospects.

If you believe that is the case, you can quit reading right here. Just be quiet and eat your spinach.

But if you read on, don’t expect the Democrat to be blamed. It was the Republicans who installed the A+ program, outrageously ineffective even by government standards. Then they gave us the seemingly eternal and useless ISTEP testing.

Those were the first wastebaskets of good education intentions — reforms on paper only. After decades of it, plus millions of utterly lost dollars and a couple of generations of squandered public support, we are left with a junk system. Ask any of the thousands of families fleeing it via the new but still-limited voucher programs. Ask them about the difference in the stories they hear each night about their children’s day in school.

So, why not try real reform? Why not abandon the impossible, which is equality of results? Why not replace it with the achievable, equality of opportunity? What if we set individual school boards free of the Indiana Collective Bargaining Act? What if we allowed the faculty of each school to define its own education missions, compete for its own students?

In short, at least in regard to reorganizing the education system, let’s try inequality.

The Indiana Policy Review Foundation, beginning in 1990, has published detailed plans, written by a range of education experts, to dismantle and reform the Indiana public-school system. None involve trapping students in inadequate schools.

Rather, all involve returning management prerogative to individual school buildings. All negate or eliminate central control and mandatory collective bargaining. All allow students to carry their current or even increased education allotment “in their backpacks” to the school that they and their parents decide is best for them. In sum, the experts recommend we make our school system unequal — unequally excellent.

Before reviewing the volumes of research and scholarship that support such a shocking idea, try first to imagine how it might change everyday education discussions.

One changed discussion would be in the teachers’ lounge. What if faculty members were able to use their skills to win a districtwide education niche for their school, i.e., for advanced math, for fine arts, for marketable trade skills or, perhaps most appealing, for a traditional well-rounded education?

Another changed discussion would be the one at your kitchen table. What if you and your student could choose any curriculum in any school in the district, including the one around the corner?

The current system contends — nay, commands — that neither the teacher nor the parent is capable of making such important decisions. That argument is made, absurdly, even as our top-down system heads toward the fate of its archetype, the Red Banner Tractor Factory. Parents know their children; teachers know their students. Give them choices in a free market.

The insistence on state-mandated education may be absurd, but it is entrenched. Some years ago, officers of our foundation sat down with a powerful GOP senator with influence in both legislative houses. We asked him to read the results of a 14-month study that analyzed the debilitating effects of the Indiana Collective Bargaining Act. He in effect shoved it back across the table, saying, “I couldn’t get that out of committee.”

That may be true, but it was neither an excuse nor an explanation. Getting good policy out of a committee is a political responsibility; failure has political repercussions. An opportunity was missed back then to begin a legislative discussion that by now would be bearing fruit.

Senator Schneider would restart that discussion. Wish him well.  — Craig Ladwig



Indiana Policy Review journals
dedicated to education reform:

Beyond School Consolidation.
Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring 2008.

Government Schools Can Be Saved — Maybe.
Vol. 18, No. 4, Fall 2007.

Government Schools: What’s Got to Change.
Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter 2007.

More Money Won’t Help Indiana Schools.
Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 2004.

Public Education Without Romance: The Impact of Collective Bargaining on Indiana Schools.
Vol. 12, No. 3. Winter 2001.

Collective Bargaining: Are All the Cards on the Table?
Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1990.


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