- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2010


It’s hard to imagine what level of education schooled the prodigious group of men who collectively became known as America’s Founding Fathers. Picture Benjamin Franklin, a school dropout at age 10, becoming a voracious reader; he did. Or another Massachusetts native, Horace Mann, the “founding father of common schools,” riding around his home state on horseback advocating school reform; he did.

There were no magnet and charter schools then, and no one railing against vouchers, either. Indeed, there was no public education system to speak of. Public schooling, though, was no mere afterthought.

There were, thank heaven, provocateurs like Thomas Jefferson, who said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Where do expectations stand today?

There’s a line in the “civilized vs. uncivilized” film “The Book of Eli” that stands as one answer. Amid the destruction of the world that was, the gangster who holds sway over a spiritually starved town asks one of his henchmen to check behind the TV for Eli’s book, the Bible. The puzzled henchman asks, “What’s a TV?”

In this 21st-century age, teachers surely are challenged when prolific texting, e-mailing and cellular-phone calling are the common communication threads that bind civilization. It’s hard to imagine what goes on inside today’s public schoolhouses if you aren’t obligated to step inside.

Gone are the days when the Romance languages were commonplace in grammar schools. Heck, even the term “grammar school” has been banished. These days, public schooling isn’t so much about teaching and learning as it is testing, filing paperwork and imitating George Wallace with rules that block the schoolhouse doors for the very children who are most in need of “common schooling.”

Yet one of the most successful modern means for common schooling is charter schools. Interestingly, states around the country are scrambling to either create or expand their charter portfolios - though their motive isn’t altruistic.

States have been in a take-the-money-and-run mode because of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion program to pay states that ease restrictions on charter schools and adopt some charterlike standards for other public schools, including linking teacher pay to student achievement. (Can’t you hear the teachers unions moaning?)

Charter schools are hugely popular in the nation’s capital, where Congress had to practically force them down the city’s liberal throat, and their academic and graduation-rate successes are well-documented.

One of the most successful D.C. clusters is Friendship Public Charter Schools, whose Chamberlain Middle School campus recently celebrated the fact that one of its own, Stephanie Day, was named D.C. Teacher of the Year. She is just the third charter school teacher to be so honored.

Ms. Day has established a high teaching-and-learning standard, and she holds herself and her students accountable.

“Ms. Day won because she believes in her students and knows that they can achieve immeasurable goals when held to the highest standards,” said Barnaby Towns, director of communications of the advocacy group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. “We are delighted that this honor is going to one of the many outstanding educators who teach the 38 percent of D.C. children in public charter schools.”

Educating the public is necessary for a civilized republic.

The Founders got it right: A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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