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Conservatives Create Opportunities, Not Programs: Education

This is the first in a series of conservative solution proposals. I have no idea how many more I will do. I just know that we have to have an answer to the programs the liberals and conservatives have been implementing for the past couple of decades.

For the past eight years (some might say twenty), conservatives in government have been acting like democrats. We’ve seen program after program implemented, give more and more control of our lives over to the government. This flies in the face of the true conservative principle of limited government. This, I believe, has been our greatest failure, and has resulted in being marginalized and beaten at the voting booth. We will never be able to out-program the Democrats.

Nowhere is this as evident as it is in education. Federal spending on education has increased at an alarming rate since 2000, with little measurable benefit. The following hockey stick graph from a Department of Education website shows the increase in K-12 federal spending since 1966.

Too many students continue to fail to meet minimum standards in basic subjects, even with this dramatic increase in federal spending. State spending also has been trending up at a concerning rate. The following graph shows the increase in spending broken down by local, state, and federal government.

You’ll note in the graph that local spending has risen at a more reasonable and consistent rate. This is expected, since people have more control over the rise of local taxes than they do for state and federal.

As if this weren’t enough, not nearly enough of this money is making its way back to the classroom. It’s difficult to obtain information on how much money makes its way to the local school districts, the Heritage Foundation reports that New York City’s public schools revealed that only 43 percent of the city’s total education funds was used for direct classroom expenditures. The simple fact is, most government programs are run like the DMV. Anyone that doesn’t realize this is either incredibly ignorant, or is someone that benefits from the system.

Another thing conservatives often do is to promote solutions that don’t have enough support. In the case of education, vouchers is a good example. While I think there are some great possibilities with them, I think there are also some negatives. And let’s face it; if the issue can’t win in Utah, it’s not going to win elsewhere. We simply can’t continue to take an all-or-none approach when presenting conservative solutions. The best conservative solution is the one that brings opportunity, while at the same time emphasizing responsibility and accountability. I wrote about this recently in a blog called The Three Parts of Freedom. I’m not usually one to link to my own work, but for those that want a deeper understanding of the philosophy I propose, it’s an important read.

Opportunity

Opportunity begins with choice. Choice brings competition, which is absolutely necessary for success. You’d have a difficult time finding a successful small businessman that didn’t want fair competition in their marketplace. It not only benefits the customer, but it also pushes them to continue to improve and stay sharp.

The two most attractive opportunities in education today are Charter Schools, and School Choice. There’s no question that Charter schools have been successful where they’ve been implemented. The State of Colorado released the School Accountability Report this month. Four of the top five high schools are charter schools, including Fort Collins’ Ridgeview Classical School which came in at number three with a score of 2.33. Eight of the top ten middle schools were also charter schools, including Liberty Common School in Fort Collins.

The Charter School concept is simple. Families in a local community meet together to determine how they want their children to be educated. This is the conservative way; keeping control over government programs at the lowest level possible. This keeps both responsibility and accountibility (to be discussed later) where it belongs.

School choice drives competition, even among traditional public schools. Examples in my community are Lesher Junior High School, which is involved in the InterBaccalaureate (IB) program, and my son’s school Kinard Junior High School, which uses the Core Knowledge educational approach. My older son attends Centennial High School here in Fort Collins, which is an alternative school that specializes in educating kids that have difficulty in a traditional school environment. They use the Discovery Program approach. Having the ability to choose among programs such as these is important to parents, who have the ultimate responsibility for their children’s education. This leads me to,

Responsibility

To take advantage of the opportunities of school choice, there are certain responsibilities we all must bear. Government’s primary responsibility is to promote educational choice. It must not continue to be manipulated by education associations and teacher unions into believing that children are best educated without choices. These same associations and unions would be better served supporting educational choices which would improve the system for everyone, including them.

Parents also must take responsibility for the education of their children, and that does not simply mean getting them to and from the school building. It includes attending school board meetings, talking with school administrators and your children’s teachers. It also includes volunteering at your school. Most school districts have a list of volunteer opportunities to help fill in gaps in education. They are usually of such a variety that most anyone would be able to help out somewhere. One of the greatest needs is helping students read, or reading to them. This doesn’t require any special skills, yet can make the difference for that student whether or not he succeeds.

Local businesses can help out here too. Often, businesses complain that the workers they hire are not sufficiently educated to do the job required of them, yet how many of those same companies are willing to allow their workers a little time off each month to go help those future workers? A blogger at RedState kansasconservative wrote a very good blog recently on this subject.

Students are not free from responsibility either. When someone else is paying for something for you, you not only have the responsibility to do your part, but demand that others do theirs as well. That means doing your work, getting help when you need it, and helping others that need a little extra help with their work. A community only works when all of its members do their fair share.

This involvement by everyone is what can lead to greater gains. As people see that educational choice leads to better educated students and a better community, voters will be much more willing to consider things like vouchers.

Accountability

Schools still need to meet certain standards, regardless of the desires of the local community. This is where government standards can make sure that all schools are working towards the same goal, and that students that graduate from any type of school can compete in the marketplace. Unfortunately, too many government programs like NCLB and others have failed. All accountability without choice gives us is a list of schools that aren’t meeting the necessary criteria, without the impetus to create real change.

Parents need to hold school and State administrators accountable to providing the opportunity for education for their children. We need to hold our government legislators accountable when they try to take away or prevent educational choice.

The final thing that is necessary for this to be successful is to be able to present it to the public in a simple way. People aren’t going to read a several page position paper to be convinced that an idea is worthwhile. Heck, I’m surprised any of you made it this far in such a long blog post. It seems to me though, that will all of the talented conservatives around, the idea of opportunity, responsibility, and accountability should be able to be communicated in a 30-second commercial.

We’re never going to win the battle of programs with the liberals. Theirs is always going to sound better because there’s less for the individual to do. We have to win the battle of philosophy, which for conservatives means we promote freedom, opportunity, and responsibility. It is there where we will win back the hearts and minds of the American people.

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