- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 7, 2009


I share President Obama’s concerns about education. We certainly need to do a better job, particularly in our low-income communities.

But, from what I see so far, we’re on very different pages regarding how to think about the problem.

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For Mr. Obama, the solution to everything seems to be government and spending. But in improving education, more of neither seems to work.

According to Department of Education data, reported by the Cato Institute, K-12 spending per student, adjusted for inflation, went from $5,393 in 1970 to $11,470 in 2004. Over the same period, there were tiny increases in math scores among 17-year-olds and no improvement in reading scores.

In his address to Congress, Mr. Obama was clear that he understands it’s not just money but how it’s spent. “our schools don’t just need more resources, they need more reform,” he said.

But can we really believe that over the 35 years that per pupil spending doubled it did not dawn on any educator that reform was in order? There are endless new ideas about how to spend money to manipulate kids into learning.

The problem with professional bureaucrats is that they think we learn about human beings in laboratories and academic studies. It never occurs to them the problem is a bankrupt culture, which they themselves often reflect, and what’s needed is a return to traditional values.

I recently watched the made-for-television movie, “Gifted Hands.” It’s based on the book by the same name by Dr. Ben Carson about his remarkable life. I read it years ago when it was published and made my daughters read it.

Dr. Carson is one of the world’s few black pediatric neurosurgeons, world renowned for his professional accomplishments. He is a professor and department head at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

In his own words, he was an “at risk” child - a black male raised in poverty by a young, poorly educated single mother. According to Dr. Carson, “My mother worked as a domestic, two, sometimes three jobs at a time because she didn’t want to be on welfare. She felt very strongly that if she gave up and went on welfare, that she would give up control of her life and of our lives, and I think she was probably correct about that.”

When Dr. Carson was failing in school as a young boy, she laid down the law to him and his brother. Both of them would read two books a week and give her a book report (they had no idea she couldn’t read). And, they would be limited to three television shows per week. Dr. Carson’s young mother changed his life.

It’s also relevant to mention that Dr. Carson’s mother is a Christian woman of deep faith - a faith he shares. She redirected her boys’ lives out of religious inspiration.

Ben Carson, of course, is an exceptional man. But his story verifies what existing studies show. The main predictor of a child’s educational success is the parental guidance and involvement that the child gets at home. Central to this also must be values. The problem is that these values - the traditional values that Ben Carson’s mother taught him - are off-limits in our public schools.

This is why throwing money at a government school monopoly won’t change education realities. We need freedom, not money. Freedom to allow parents - certainly inner-city parents - to choose their child’s school.

President Obama often uses the right words. He says “responsibility for our children’s education must begin at home.” But then he will not allow parents’ school choice and the option to choose a religious school. Ben Carson’s mother didn’t need Harvard education theorists to know what her child needed.

We need more common sense and freedom in K-12 education - not more government programs and money.

Star Parker is nationally syndicated columnist and president of CURE, Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education (www.urbancure.org).

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