Life Experiences: The Public Education System is a Failure

My Life in a Public School

School buses stopped for children.

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"A child miseducated is a child lost." - President John F. Kennedy

Education policy is one of the few issues vigorously debated at every level of government. Local communities (parents), counties, states, and the federal government struggle for control over control of the education system. Conservatives overwhelmingly support school choice and broad educational opportunity. We believe in a competitive environment that sees private, public, parochial, charter, and alternative schools where parents can choose the best fit for their kids. We also generally believe in voucher programs that would help children in poorer communities have the same opportunities to go to the same schools as their wealthier counterparts, almost always with a lower price-tag than simply sending them to failing public schools.

Liberals love, as one might suspect, the big government solution. One central policy fits all. Appeasing the wealthy and voter rich teacher's unions is their top priority, though they will always claim it's "for the children." This is why Democrats always favor protecting government teachers over helping kids - often minorities who need such help the most - escape a bad environment. Stomping out the competition and battling alternative forms of education, such as private schools or homeschooling, is also high on the agenda. Government always knows best, and decades of failure will not change their minds. But how do such opinions toward public education develop? Why is it that conservatives and liberals are so far apart when ensuring a successful educational system is one thing we should all agree on? Often, people take a political position based on the political party they have chosen. My position comes from my own experiences.

My Life as a Public Education Student

I was lured with an offer: "Choose our high school and earn college credits." It was 1995 and I was heading into high school. No-one in my family had ever gone to college, and it was pretty well beaten into me that I would be the first. My family was on the lower-end of the middle class scale and private school was out of the question at this point. Luckily, as most would view it, I was zoned to go to a mostly white and wealthy public high school. But there was an alternative: a separate public high school recently started offering free college credits through a set of different magnet programs. As you might guess, a magnet program is meant to "attract" students to that school. The magnet school was located in a low-income, high-crime community and many thought I was crazy to voluntarily go there.

With roughly 40% of students failing to graduate, the school had the highest dropout rate out of the two dozen district schools. But the option of free college credits that would eliminate over a year of college was too good to pass up for someone in my situation. I actually had a choice, though not as many as I would want my kids to have today. And as I would later realize, the system was not set-up with the student's best interests in mind. I realized it was both a scam for me and the community that the school served.

Importing Improvements

Why was a magnet program established at, of all places, this failing public high school? In retrospect, it seems obvious. News reports at the time hinted the program was put into place for "diversity" reasons and to integrate the school better (the student body is roughly 5% white). But their was no real integration. The people bussed in from other communities were shoved into honors or Advanced Placement classes with each other and were effectively segregated from the rest of the students anyway. The only diversification that could be seen was in the hallways as we rushed from class to class or in P.E. So, that clearly was no reason to have the magnet program located there if you were seeking to diversify.

One critical factor is that the magnet programs have requirements. Above average grades were required both for acceptance and in order to stay in the various magnet programs. The requirements are necessary and logical given that students would be taking college level classes. But it made even more sense as to why the programs were developed in this particular school: to import successful students and help get the school out of the basement. It was a pretty safe bet that the students being brought into these magnet programs, which were located in a school with high drop-out and low college preparedness rates, would both graduate and go to college. The number of magnet schools increased, and so to did the importation of better students. Is it cynical to suggest that these programs were introduced into this school for no other reason than to make the school seem as though it was improving, when they were doing little more than filling seats with kids who were supposed to go to other schools? Where the unable to make real change with the students they had so they attempted to stack the deck?

Failing the Students who Lived in the Community

I don't oppose the idea of having magnet schools. I believe the concept of letting high school students both earn college credits and decide on a career path would work well in a competitive educational system. But the model here was seemingly to make a school appear more successful by bringing in students who were highly likely to succeed, rather than actually fixing the underlying problems with the broken public education system. Nothing changed for those who lived in that community and went to that school. The school system tried to put lipstick on a pig.

The magnet school would have logically fit into any other public school besides this one. If anything, it made absolutely no sense to put the school there at all. Yes, some of the kids in the magnet program were from the community, but that was a very small percentage. My classes were filled primarily with those who were brought in from outside of the community, then we were bussed out when the bells rang. The horrible irony is rather than taking good kids with few options out and sending them somewhere to be successful, they were taking good kids who were in a good situation and putting them into a pretty bad environment. This is why I and most conservatives support public choice. Eventually, we have to put the needs of children above the needs of teachers and and the government's dream of complete control over education.