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Is Educational Choice the Solution for Our National Security Problem?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The Council on Foreign Relations taskforce headed by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice proposed three solutions for making education a national strength rather than a national security weakness:

  • Raise Expectations – States should implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to ensure that students are gaining skills and knowledge that will make them assets to national security such as science, technology, and foreign languages, as well as creative problem solving and civic awareness.
  • Better Choices – School districts should open up options for school choice so that students will not be trapped in failing schools. This would also serve to increase competition among schools and aid in further education reform.
  • National Security Readiness Audit – This would measure school success and make schools, teachers, and policymakers accountable for student learning. Essentially, this is intended to force states and schools to comply with the Common Core Standards and to punish them if they do not or cannot.
    (U.S. Education Reform and National Security)

All three solutions proposed by the task force undermine teacher autonomy, the ability to teach creativity and innovation, and play on previous movements that are generally opposed by educators because of their detrimental effect on education.

Raising Expectations
Playing on the idea of the Common Core State Standards for education, the task force is looking to help in the effort to establish a uniform education for all students. While this sounds wonderful on the surface, it accomplishes this goal by implementing a uniform curriculum across the country that removes teacher autonomy and prevents the teaching of innovative thinking in our schools beyond the very tightly curricularly mandated notion of creativity.

In a global economy that relies on innovation and the ability to imagine new products, solve problems, and even develop military/security solutions, constraining the ability of teachers to teach truly innovative thinking skills by mandating a universal curriculum will ultimately hurt our national security by stunting the one area in which Americans excel beyond individuals in any other country (Marquis, 2012).

Choosing Security?
The suggestion to open up all public education to a voucher-based choice system is the most troubling of the task force’s recommendations. While it is certainly true that, for a limited number of students, the ability to opt out of one school and into another, or to use their funding towards attending a private school, presents a substantial benefit, such policies do not account for those who are unable to exercise their option to choose a better school. Many students, particularly those who would benefit the most from a school choice or voucher program, simply lack the resources to get to another, better school. District busses are not going to alter their routes to accommodate individuals, so the student or their parents are generally responsible for taking them to the new school – every day, 180 days a year, at less than convenient times. Additionally, for inner-city students, there may not even be a better school accessible to them. Paying the additional costs associated with attending a private school would also represent a hardship for those most likely to benefit from a voucher system.

The National Education Association (NEA), maintains a web page devoted to outlining the myriad problems associated with voucher/choice proposals. Here are a few of the most salient points that the site makes:

  • Americans want consistent standards for students. Where vouchers are in place — Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida — a two-tiered system has been set up that holds students in public and private schools to different standards.
  • NEA and its affiliates support direct efforts to improve public schools. There is no need to set up new threats to schools for not performing. What is needed is help for the students, teachers, and schools who are struggling.
  • A voucher lottery is a terrible way to determine access to an education. True equity means the ability for every child to attend a good school in the neighborhood.
  • Vouchers were not designed to help low-income children. Milton Friedman, the "grandfather" of vouchers, dismissed the notion that vouchers could help low-income families, saying "it is essential that no conditions be attached to the acceptance of vouchers that interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment."
  • A pure voucher system would only encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification in our society. America’s success has been built on our ability to unify our diverse populations.
  • About 85 percent of private schools are religious. Vouchers tend to be a means of circumventing the Constitutional prohibitions against subsidizing religious practice and instruction.
  • In the words of political strategist, Grover Norquist, "We win just by debating school choice, because the alternative is to discuss the need to spend more money…"
  • Despite desperate efforts to make the voucher debate about "school choice" and improving opportunities for low-income students, vouchers remain an elitist strategy. From Milton Friedman’s first proposals, through the tuition tax credit proposals of Ronald Reagan, through the voucher proposals on ballots in California, Colorado, and elsewhere, privatization strategies are about subsidizing tuition for students in private schools, not expanding opportunities for low-income children.
    (NEA, The Case Against Vouchers)

National Accountability Audit
The final suggestion made by the task force is to implement an National Security Readiness Audit which will "measure school success and make schools, teachers, and policymakers accountable for student learning" (U.S. Education Reform and National Security). This concept feeds into the national accountability movement (NEA Today, Dec. 5, 2011), which seeks to make teachers solely responsible for student learning. Holding teachers accountable for the learning of students who lack basic necessities, are unprepared for education, have parents who won’t or can’t help them, in a society that otherwise does not value them or education, is absurd. While the idea set forth by the task force that policy makers should also be held accountable is commendable, it has no teeth. Schools and teachers can be penalized for the failings of their students by reductions in funding or salary, but there is no similar system of accountability for politicians. They would shrug off any attempt at accountability as ridiculous – how can they be expected to be accountable for all of their constituents’ learning?

Ultimately, this type of accountability or audit will penalize schools and teachers who serve disadvantaged students. Reducing funding or penalizing teachers who are dedicated to doing a thankless job will eventually add to the pool of un-qualified youth entering the workforce and potential national security service. Such a solution only makes the problem worse.

A World-Class Education System
Ultimately the best way to make education a national strength rather than a security liability is to build a system that provides an excellent education for all members of society regardless of their ability or inclination to move to a particular school. Here is what the task force believes a "world-class education system" should do:

"A world-class education system is vital to preserving not just the country’s physical security but also to reinforcing the broader components of American leadership, such as economic dynamism, an informed and active democracy, and a coterie of informed professionals willing and able to live and serve around the world."
(U.S. Education Reform and National Security)

Proposing a voucher system, for example, which systematically alienates and isolates a portion of the population would have exactly the opposite effects on our society. Creating a more rigid class division could even have the unwanted side effects of causing internal conflict, increasing crime, and causing general social unrest (Bourdieu, 1979).

In contrast, engaging more people in the political process, in economic life, and in innovative problem solving is a side effect of providing an excellent education for all and would have the added benefit of supporting a much more secure future for the nation. The suggestions set forth in the U.S. Education Reform and National Security report, do just the opposite, by heightening class divisions, and creating a system through which a significant portion of our students will become trapped in the second-class school system, while their more privileged peers move on to the first-class system. Allowing students to escape failing schools, taking their funding with them, further exacerbates this issue. The only real solution is to spend more on everyone’s education so as to make it unnecessary for any students to feel that they could get a better education elsewhere.

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