Blaming public schools for the declining quality of their graduates is a lot like firing a high school coach after a few losing seasons. Yes, sometimes it’s the coach’s fault, but more often the problem lies with his players’ deficient skills or insufficient effort.

Critics insist schools need to change to equip students with 21st-century skills, but the truth is too many graduates lack skills for any century, like reading and writing.

Anybody who thinks the solution lies in making schools more fun, more hands-on, or more student-centered, or that students would learn if we’d only let them use their smartphones to consult their friend in the next row, has missed the fact that reform-minded bright ideas, including cooperatively sharing their work and answers, have been contributing to the national academic decline since before there were smartphones.

Advocates, primarily but not exclusively on the political right, prescribe charter schools and vouchers as solutions. Charter schools are essentially private schools that receive public funding. Vouchers are tuition credits that parents can spend at the school of their choice.

It’s only reasonable to wonder if my doubts about school choice are prompted by self-interest. After all, where would teachers like me find jobs if students started attending other kinds of schools? The obvious answer is many of us would wind up working at other kinds of schools. The laughable part about any wholesale plan to replace mediocre teachers is nobody ever gets terribly practical about where the replacements would come from.

Some reformers propose hiring real-world experts. Let engineers teach science and accountants teach math. Journalists can run English classes, lawyers can take the helm in civics and diplomats can drill students in French.


There’s a reason many real-world types don’t teach in public schools. It isn’t because no one will give them permission. It’s because they don’t want to do so.

Even if you could somehow entice working professionals into America’s classrooms, that wouldn’t guarantee a better crop of teachers. A decade ago, a brokerage firm aired a commercial depicting an ex-businessman who’d amassed enough of a stock portfolio to be able to retire and live on a teacher’s salary. He told his new high school class how thrilled he was to be there and how he was going to make learning fun, and how they were all going to have a good time.

They stopped filming just before his students ate him for breakfast.

Socrates didn’t hold a teaching certificate. A license doesn’t guarantee that a teacher, or a doctor or an electrician, is good, only that he’s met some minimum requirements. We need to decide if those minimum standards are worth maintaining and documenting.

If they aren’t, then let’s eliminate them in every school, not just charter schools. Why should any classroom be saddled with regulations that hamper education? On the other hand, if the rules are worthwhile, then they should apply to every institution.

Private schools can already set their own standards and write their own regulations. Parents can already decide how and where they want their children educated. If parents want to enroll their children in a private school that doesn’t require teaching certificates, or one that focuses on the arts or accents religion, that is and should be their prerogative.

The fact is parents have always had school choice. Charter schools and vouchers are all about having the public pay for those choices.

Why should we?

Conservatives like to talk about education as if it were a business, but they’ve forgotten who the customer is.

The customer isn’t a student. The customer isn’t the student’s parents. The customers are the citizens who pay the bills.

Activists across the nation increasingly lobby for parent-trigger laws. These statutes empower a school’s parents to vote to close a school, turn it into a charter school, fire teachers and principals and petition to make significant changes in school policies. Notice that only parents get a vote, not the citizens who pay for the schools.

Nearly four hundred years ago, the Puritans established the first tax-supported public school system. Their intention was to teach their children to read the Bible so they could avoid the Devil’s snares. They cared about each child’s welfare, but they had their society’s best interest in mind. They were willing to spend public funds on instruction they deemed valuable for their community.

Today, public schools have a mission that society considers equally vital. It’s a mission we inherited from Thomas Jefferson. We’re working to prepare the heirs of the Republic.

That means passing along the body of knowledge and skill that we consider worthwhile. It doesn’t mean writing a blank check to anybody. It doesn’t mean paying the bills for every alternative school that cartwheels across the school-reform stage. It means funding schools that satisfy society’s criteria and goals. Parents are welcome within the limits of relevant law to take advantage of the schools that society offers. They’re welcome to take part in an orderly discussion and debate about those schools — no threats, no fists, no guns. Beyond that, we extend to any parent the liberty to choose another educational philosophy, curriculum and institution.

We don’t build public roads to suit each individual motorist’s personal destination. If a school’s program doesn’t promote the public good, doesn’t teach students what society wants them to know, then we the public shouldn’t be expected to pay for it.

Any school that receives public funds should be answerable to the voting, tax-paying public by an elected schoolboard. Charter schools are governed by private boards of directors and therefore aren’t directly accountable to the public. Vouchers similarly require us to pay for schools over which we have little or no control.

There’s more than one way to educate children, and some public schools admittedly are doing less than satisfactory work. There’s room for improvement, including the adoption of some provisions of laws like Florida’s parental rights statute. For example, parents should be able to find out what their children will be learning.

Bear in mind the following the next time you’re inclined to claim your parental rights at school:

Parents are sovereign in their children’s lives but not in the lives of other people’s children.

Parental choice usually doesn’t improve schools.

Parents already have school choice. It’s called voting in school board elections.

We need to stop talking about public education’s problems as if someone else were the public.

Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

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