- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2010

President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee jump-started the week on national television by discussing public education. They all pushed for more reform, but none of them went on the offensive and mentioned what surely is a huge stumbling block to effective teaching and learning in public schools: federal government interference.

The broadening of federal education policy has tied our local public systems in knots. Local and state school authorities cannot make a single policy move without first making sure they are adhering to laws and regulations established by Washington bureaucrats.

That fact lies at the very heart of several questions posed by a reader of my column from last Friday.

“Do you think that the school system attempts to take on so much responsibility — in addition to education — that the outcome does not change?” the reader asked in an e-mail.

Ding, ding, ding. Our public school “systems” no longer focus on teaching and learning.

Poor Ms. Rhee and her counterparts around the country have become substitute parents, forced to look out for the health and welfare of our children in addition to their education.

They have to feed our kids before, during and after school; provide transportation; teach them about sex; discipline them; look for signs of abuse or neglect; figure out if they have special needs (and cover all costs if they do); offer parenting classes; provide physical exams; re-educate adults who failed the first go-round; pay and plan for teachers to stay on top of their classroom game; sustain teacher retirement funds; and much, much more.

Schools chiefs will have another daunting task on their hands as the push for universal pre-K programs leads to educators potty-training America’s toddlers, too.

Betwixt and between all those responsibilities, which are tied to federal mandates and funds, teaching and learning are expected to take place.

Not a chance.

All schools have to follow federal and state regulations, but private, religious and many public charter schools can work around the feds and hog-tied, hidebound central administrations. So outcomes are different.

That’s because parents who have options will a) choose a school that best fits their child’s academic needs; and b) become much more likely to reinforce learning objectives at home.

Ms. Rhee exercised her options and sent her daughters to a public school but fired the principal because, among other things, she noticed the girls’ homework assignments were unchallenging and sporadic. Most parents hold no such clout.

Indeed, most American parents are wholly dependent on public schools, which are increasingly dependent on tax dollars.

We keep thinking more money will produce smarter kids — but that ain’t gonna happen.

Unless and until we rethink the meaning of public education and refocus on teaching and learning, public school “systems” will remain struggling behemoths. The White House and Congress don’t hand out free money; strings are always attached.

Think about shopping options.

Warehouse outlets like Costco offer better deals if you buy in bulk (traditional public schools), but other retail outlets (boutiques, organic food stores and specialty shops that adhere to the teachings of your faith) often can better meet the needs of your family.

We weigh our options and make our purchases.

Yet, we keep thinking our children are better off in one-size-fits-all public school systems.

“Systems” do not change, and the federal education bureaucracy in Washington is inherently designed to ensure they don’t.

National politicians — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike — created the policies and the laws that put us in this mess, and card-carrying union members, who are like politicians, help sustain it. Don’t expect either group to do anything that puts their jobs at risk.

Are our public school “systems” biting off more than they can chew?

You better bet they are. But what are you going to do about it?

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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