GOP frontrunner takes on public education
Source: EdSource Extra
By: Louis Freedberg
February 21, 2012
The first major discussion of education in the 2012 presidential campaign has centered not on reforms like teacher tenure or what should replace the No Child Left Behind law but on the merits of public education itself.
Current GOP frontrunner Rick Santorum, a major proponent of homeschooling, wants to diminish the role of states and the federal government in public education, and put more power and control into the hands of parents.
“The idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic,” he said in comments last week in Columbus, Ohio. “It goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools.”
The antipathy to the public school system Santorum expressed over the past week echoed similar statements he has been making for years, and on the campaign trail.
“Public schools?,” he declared disparagingly in New Hampshire a year ago.”That’s a nice way of putting it. These are government-run schools.”
Since 1879 the California Constitution has mandated that a “system of common schools … be kept up and supported” in the state. If he had the opportunity, Santorum might well label that clause as an anachronism standing in the way of parental rights.
But as in other states, no California schools are run by the state or federal government, except for those in juvenile detention facilities and the handful of financially troubled districts taken over by a state administrator in return for getting state bail-out loans.
The federal government “can help,” Santorum said last week. That is what it does now, providing about 11 percent of school funding. The rest comes from state and local sources.
Schools are still run by local boards. Those boards are one of the primary features setting the United States apart from many countries where schools are governed by a combination of national curricula, exams and tests.
“I think the parent should be in charge,” Santorum explained, “working with the local school district to try to design an educational environment for each child that optimizes their potential.”
But in California parents and children arguably have more educational choices than they ever had:
California’s public education system serving 6.2 million children consists of nearly 10,000 schools, varying in size and emphasis.
In many public school districts, parents can choose between options such as magnet schools, schools within schools, and career academies.
Nearly 1,000 charter schools, with an enrollment of 412,000 children, offer a vast array of approaches.
California’s “parent trigger” law gives a majority of parents in at least some schools the ability to radically transform it, including turning into a charter school.
California has a vibrant private school sector, attended by 515,000 students.
Homeschools are an “increasingly popular alternative” according to the HomeSchool Association of California, which estimates they serve “anywhere between 60,000 to 200,000 children” in the state.
In his writings and on the campaign trail, Santorum suggests that homeschooling is the preferred form of educating children. It’s how he and his wife Karen taught his children (with the help of several years in an online public charter school).
In his book, It Takes A Family, Santorum contrasts “mass education” as an “aberration” at least compared to the option of homeschooling:
It’s amazing that so many kids turn out to be fairly normal, considering the weird socialization they get in public schools.
In a home school, by contrast, children interact in a rich and complex way with adults and children of other ages all the time. In general, they are better-adjusted, more at ease with adults, more capable of conversation, more able to notice when a younger child needs help or comfort, and in general a lot better socialized than their mass-schooled peers.
At root, Santorum seems to favor a more individualized education system that runs against the grain of the bipartisan thrust of education reform over the past decade, which has been to emphasize a more centralized, top-down approach to education reform, beginning with the No Child Left Behind law a decade ago, and now embodied in the “Common Core State Standards” adopted by nearly all states, including California.
The sweeping No Child Left Behind law represents one of the most vigorous federal government intrusions into local schools in the nation’s history. It was the brainchild of a Republican president, then-President George W. Bush. Santorum was one of a majority of Republicans who voted for the law in 2001. He now says his vote was a mistake.
Santorum would prefer to decentralize it even further, apparently wanting to push more power from the local school board down to the parent level. On his “Restoring America’s Greatness” website, his education platform reads:
Rick Santorum believes that education is the responsibility of the consumer, the parent. Putting “parents first” is how best we put “students first.” Parents have the fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of their children with local school systems supporting, as desired.
But he has yet to spell out a plan for how this “parents first” approach would work in practice, or how working parents wishing to homeschool would manage to set up classrooms in their living rooms—and then transform themselves into teachers, imparting knowledge from third grade science to high school calculus.
Perhaps what Santorum is really objecting to is not so much federal or state-run schools, of which there are few, but how much control or influence the federal or state government should exert over locally run schools. That is a more mainstream debate being vigorously fought in California—and remains unresolved.
It would be hard to find an educator in California that did not regard the bloated education code, running into thousands of pages, as urgently in need of slimming down. A major thrust of Gov. Jerry Brown’s approach to education has been to eschew piling on more state mandates and to give more control to local schools and districts.
But Brown, who helped establish two charter schools in Oakland, has not questioned the basic functioning of public education, or its central place in American society, and history.
As for a debate on national policy issues such as what should replace the No Child Left Behind law, the impact of President Obama’s Race to the Top competition that pitted state against state, and the merits of linking teacher evaluations to student test scores — with any luck that will happen in the fall.