Education has been a high priority for Americans since the first settlers arrived here. The Founding Fathers thought a free society would be impossible without an educated population. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
K–12 schools in America today, particularly public schools, are failing to perform their essential duty of passing along to the next generation the core of knowledge that makes civilization possible. A once-vibrant marketplace of public and private schools has become, as Peter Brimelow wrote, “in essence a socialized business, the American equivalent of the Soviet Union’s collectivized farms.”
Today about nine of every 10 students attend schools that are owned, operated, and staffed by government employees. About 70 percent of the teachers in those schools belong to unions, working under workplace rules that frustrate the best and brightest while protecting the incompetent and even dangerous teachers. Curriculum has been debased as teachers and administrators lowered standards in order to make their jobs easier and to avoid being held responsible for falling student achievement. The public education establishment “even [has] policies now that make curriculum ‘teacher proof,’ as if teachers would mess it up if they weren’t watched and managed every minute of the school day.”
The publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk warned Americans of a national crisis caused by the poor performance of their public school system. Many reforms were instituted and the resources devoted to public schools were vastly increased. However, in 2003 the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K–12 Education concluded those reforms “have not improved school performance or student achievement.” In the intervening 20 years, about 80 million first graders “have walked into schools where they have scant chance of learning much more than the youngsters whose plight troubled the Excellence Commission in 1983.”
Today, 13 years after the Koret Task Force report, evidence of inadequate public school performance continues to emerge: the country’s poor standing in international comparisons; staggering dropout rates for big-city high schools that show little or no improvement over time; stagnant test scores and a large achievement gap between white and minority students; more graduates requiring remedial education before or after entering college and workplaces; and deficiencies in school curriculum such as neglect of civics.
Even more alarming is emerging evidence that the problems affecting public schools are spreading to private schools as they increasingly adopt the curricula and tests used in the public sector and as Catholic schools close due to competitive pressure from “free” charter schools. We can no longer assume that simply moving a child from a public to a private school will produce better outcomes.
Transforming K–12 education is the most important public policy issue in the U.S. today. Unless we can improve the quality of education students receive today, we have little hope of solving many of the most vexing social and economic problems of tomorrow.
The Heartland Institute has long been a leading voice for school transformation – and school choice in particular. Since 1997, it has published the school choice movement’s national outreach publication, School Reform News. More than half of state elected officials surveyed say they read School Reform News, making it the movement’s most effective way to reach policymakers.
School choice, the Parent Trigger, and digital learning are three innovations that create new opportunities to transform education. While promoting positive, transformative change in K–12 schooling, Heartland does not shy away from opposing the special interests who would take over – even nationalize – education. We are among the country’s most effective opponents of Common Core State Standards.
The Heartland Institute's experts on education issues are available for legislative testimony, speaking engagements, and media interviews.