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Fixing America’s Public Schools: A 19-Point Checklist

For 40 years, education reformers have aimed at the heart of teacher-union power by seeking to establish charter schools and voucher programs, and to dilute union-security and check-off provisions. Relatively feeble attacks have also been made on teacher tenure and seniority practices. These efforts have not been without result: About 5 percent of K–12 students now attend charter schools.

But a lot of energy has been wasted. Despite their validation by the Supreme Court in the Zelman case, for example, voucher schemes benefit far less than 1 percent of students. So-called “accountability” reforms, meanwhile, may have actually had perverse effects: They promote uniformity in instruction, over-testing, teaching to the test, and neglect of history, geography, foreign languages, art, and music. On a deeper level, arguments about whether reforms have worked center almost entirely on test scores, without discussion of whether the reforms promote individual or family responsibility, instill better values in students, promote maturity, or are consistent with what Judge Learned Hand once called “the preservation of personality.”

Defenders of the status quo extol district public schools as “community schools” without asking whether such schools are in fact controlled by the community or what they achieve for students. The argument is framed as one between the public interest and “privatization,” easy to sustain in “stockbroker suburbs” satisfied with their schools or in rural areas where the creation of alternatives is difficult. There is limited enthusiasm for the erection of a new system to replace that which already exists; the neighborhood elementary school has its appeal, even though such schools are almost inevitably less socially diverse than private or charter schools; and there is pride in buildings, basketball teams, and the like.

After all, public high schools cost parents nothing, get adolescents out of the house when they are at their most difficult, feed them at least once per day and sometimes three, transport them, introduce them to the opposite sex, entertain them on weekends, conduct heartwarming graduation ceremonies, and eventually present young adults with certificates entitling them to admission to college or at least employment in some not-too-demanding service business. What’s not to like? The fact that by international standards the students are innumerate and by the national standards of a hundred years ago illiterate is beside the point.


Reformers too often have put all their eggs in the “choice” basket, to the detriment of proposals that would attract a broader constituency, divide defenders of the status quo, and undermine the strength of the unions and organizations that are its apologists.

There follow some suggestions that shatter the unions’ preferred narrative. For they advance not “privatization” but a sensible model of a public school that the unions and their sympathizers reject.

Such a school is:

1. A school in which teachers and principals retain control over student discipline, without fear of “disparate impact” claims, procedural steeplechases, or ruinous attorneys’ fee awards;


2. A school in which disruptive students are promptly removed from the classroom, so as not to delay or disturb the education of other students;

3. A school in which the hiring of teachers is reposed at the building level, without seniority “bumping” and other curtailments of schools’ ability to build a team;

4. A school in which the principal is selected by and responsible to a building-level board that enlists the energies of parents, teachers, and community members with relevant expertise;

5. A school that is free, like private schools, to recruit its teachers from the 90 percent of college graduates excluded from the teaching force by today’s certification rules;

6. A school that can hire properly qualified teachers of physics, chemistry, computer science, Arabic, Chinese, and other critical languages, and teachers trained to educate the blind, the deaf, and the seriously physically disabled, without being obstructed by the unions’ single salary schedule;

7. A school that can adjust its salary schedules to recruit members of single-earner families in the interest of not having an almost entirely female teaching force;

8. A school that includes in its teaching force persons of varied ages and backgrounds, including career-changers, scientists, returning housewives, and retired military, law-enforcement, business, professional, and civil-service personnel;

9. A school in which inadequate teachers can be terminated without lengthy grievance procedures;

10. A school in which learning disabilities are identified early in a student’s career through school health examinations;

11. A school that takes seriously its role in discouraging drug use among its students, and that does not, for fear of lawsuits, relegate students in wholesale lots to the criminal-justice system;

12. A school in which the quality of teachers renders unnecessary heavily prescribed curricula; in which books are read, not bite-sized chunks of them; and in which “teaching to the test” is unknown;

13. A school that treats 11th and 12th graders like the incipient adults they are, separating them from adolescents;

14. A school that does not shrink from the inculcation of cultural and religious traditions and values, and that respects parental rights of choice in this respect;

15. A school in which teachers are rewarded with adequate salaries, not with over-elaborate fringe benefits encouraging malingering and “gaming the system,” and in which “burned out” teachers are not locked into their jobs by seniority benefits and vesting requirements for pensions;

16. A school with meaningful and internationally recognized graduation standards that will not be waived by reason of supposed “disparate impact”;

17. A school with meaningful connections to the ensuing experiences, educational or industrial, of its graduates;

18. A school in which handicapped students enjoy the services of specially qualified and properly paid teachers, and in which resources are not wasted on bureaucracies preparing “individual treatment plans”; and

19. A school whose teachers are able to use new distance-learning and digital technologies free of state-level restrictions imposed by the unions.

When increasing proportions of the public are made aware of how far the typical public school departs from this model, there will be greater pressure for reform—including, where necessary, competition and “privatization.”

George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer and volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, is the author of various books on public policy and history, including Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution, Fairness, and Equality (Praeger, 1999), reprinted as Neighborhood Futures (Transaction Books, 2003).

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Fixing America’s Public Schools: A 19-Point Checklist"

#1 Comment By Rabiner On May 11, 2017 @ 12:24 am

these 19 points are so vague as to be meaningless. Also it doesn’t address funding inequalities between wealthy areas and poor areas, low entry level pay for teachers, and ignores why many of these points are counter productive to maintaining a qualified workforce when budget constraints are taken into account.

#2 Comment By jaye ryan On May 11, 2017 @ 7:39 am

“A school that can hire properly qualified teachers of physics, chemistry, computer science, Arabic, Chinese, and other critical languages, and teachers trained to educate the blind, the deaf, and the seriously physically disabled, without being obstructed by the unions’ single salary schedule;”

I respond:

I qualified for Mensa, but I was basically unable to pick up any constructive foreign language skills in an American class room. Immersion in foreign country with conversation and then some instruction works for me.

This idea that sending all American young people to schools and then colleges will magically transform them in to international diplomats who speak Chinese, Arabic and can bridge all the religious divides in the Middle East – guys, that’s just not practical.

How about teaching American inner city students to speak and write standard American English instead of Ebonics?

#3 Comment By bkh On May 11, 2017 @ 8:32 am

Tired arguments and points that have been known for decades. Public Education has failed. It is a rotting corpse that some continue to throw money and ideas at in hopes something will change. Nothing will change. It actually may even get worse. All we can do is smile at the few successful kids that make it out seemingly unscathed and hope they can function as adults.

#4 Comment By Brian On May 11, 2017 @ 11:34 am

Jan 23, 2017 A Libertarian Builds Low-Cost Private Schools for the Masses

Bob Luddy was tired of trying to convince North Carolina educrats to improve the state’s public schools, so he built his own network of low-cost private schools that the government can’t meddle with.


#5 Comment By kmac On May 11, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

All the points are valid, however you really only need one.

1. A school that is free of union control.

#6 Comment By Val On May 11, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

A real pity that the American Conservative hardly, almost NEVER, save for this article above, publishes a critique of our long woefully failing public schools.
Kudos to this exception! But is this the last, or the first in a series? I’m not holding my breath, sadly…

#7 Comment By Jon S On May 11, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

I sent my children to our local Catholic school. The school runs first through eighth grade, at which point you graduate into a local public high school.

All 3 children did exceptionally well, my last being valedictorian of his high school class. He is now readying for med school.

I don’t believe in attempting to reform schools. Teachers can teach well. The problem is the students and their parents.

When we decide to tell parents that it is their personal responsibility to prepare their children for adulthood, not the schools, all of these problems will go away.

In Florida, where I live, it appears that charter schools are just ways for people to get rich. The folks who own it generally have a secondary corporation which owns the property, and rents it to the school. Then they get a cut of book sales and underpay teachers. All on the taxpayer’s dime. No wonder results are generally worse. No thanks.

#8 Comment By Sue On May 11, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

A school whose tuition is means tested.

And yes as you say a school which prefers hiring male breadwinners the better to role model.

#9 Comment By Weldon On May 11, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

Could somebody identify a concrete way that American schools are “broken”? That’s the step I always miss in these wishlists. We’re consistently towards the top of the pack in educational outcomes.

#10 Comment By Optatus Cleary On May 11, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

I’m a teacher, and I think the situation of the teachers’ unions is more complex than it usually gets credit for being.

As a conservative I know that neither my administrators nor my union leaders agree with me on very much. But the union is what prevents me from being summarily fired for disagreeing with a pushy, radical leftist administrator. In my experience, only older tenured teachers have any leeway to teach according to student needs rather than according to a new, untested, pre-packaged program.

I agree that the stranglehold of the unions on education, and especially the protection for truly bad teachers, is a problem. However, there needs to be some system to ensure security for good teachers to be flexible and responsive to student needs. Otherwise, most experienced teachers would probably be replaced by young, sycophantic yes-men.

#11 Comment By Tiber On May 11, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

All of these sound nice in an abstract numbered list, but how does this work in reality? Sure, there are bad teachers, but it is also true that good teachers are sometimes wrongfully fired for political or personal reasons. How do you fix that? How do you get qualified teachers when it requires a lot of education for relatively little pay? How do you evaluate a teacher’s performance without incentivizing them to teach to tests?

You’ve identified the goals that a solution should meet. That’s not nothing. But unions are not always the problem (sometimes they are, but not always). To get better teachers and convince teachers to give up some of their rights, you’d have to pay them more, and that’s a difficult proposition when politicians (usually Republicans) often want to cut school funding.

#12 Comment By Arnold On May 12, 2017 @ 3:49 am

Weldon asks:

Could somebody identify a concrete way that American schools are “broken”? That’s the step I always miss in these wishlists.

How about Columbine? How about Sandy Hook? How about Frontier Middle School? How about Westside Middle School? How about Thurston High School? How about North Park Elementary School?

Given that none of these massacres occurred within any private schooling system, the onus is on the defenders of public schools to say why the rest of us should tolerate taxpayers’ money being thrown at those abattoirs, and how many more corpses are required before such defenders admit that maybe, just maybe, John Taylor Gatto and Samuel Blumenfeld were right when they eventually concluded that public education can no more be reformed than Soviet communism could be reformed.

#13 Comment By MikeCLT On May 12, 2017 @ 9:19 am

@ Jon S

“When we decide to tell parents that it is their personal responsibility to prepare their children for adulthood, not the schools, all of these problems will go away.”

Amen. It is parents who are failing their children not the schools. Yes there are some bad teachers who are protected by unions. But most teachers are competent and want to teach their students. But they cannot because the parents have failed to minimally socialize their kids.

#14 Comment By Bob Jones On May 12, 2017 @ 11:26 am

“How about Columbine? How about Sandy Hook? How about Frontier Middle School? How about Westside Middle School? How about Thurston High School? How about North Park Elementary School?”

So basically what you are saying is that because some incompetent parents neglected their children’s mental health issues, American schools are broken. Good grief.

What about Mater Dei High School, where the principal/priest molested numerous teenage boys during his tenure. I guess that proves that all Catholic schools are broken too. Similar things have happened with other parochial schools across the country, and the Boy Scouts, and Little League baseball coaches, etc. I guess all of those schools and institutions are broken as well, and should be destroyed, no?

Ultimately, you are just shifting blame. Children have problems, not because their parents have failed, or are selfish, or incompetent, but rather it is society’s fault, or the school’s fault. Just shift the blame from the people who are responsible, to whatever group or organization is in the bulls-eye of your partisan hatred, and you’ve made you point.

#15 Comment By Bob Jones On May 12, 2017 @ 11:35 am

At least half of the points made here involve additional money from some where, which simply won;t happen. You seriously think people will accept higher property taxes, so the local can hire a PhD in Chemistry, at a pay scale similar to the University’s, to teach Honors Chemistry? That will never happen, because folks like George Lieberman will be arguing for less taxation as well. So basically, the Cato Institute wants to lower taxes, and cut public funding, but at the same time is advocating higher labor costs for public schools. How is that going to work.

On the flip side, several of these suggestion involve getting the Federal Government out of public education, which would be an inherently good thing. It would also provide the local districts more flexibility in structuring their organization, hiring staff, and reducing administrative overhead.

Ultimately, though none of this will work unless that real culprits for poor student outcomes are addressed. namely, disinterested parents. parents that seem the local school as a baby-sitter, or see their children as obstacles to their life enjoyment will continue to create kids who wreck havoc on the cultural and social environment in schools. There are no amount of structural reforms that will fix that. Yet that is the one thing that education reforms – conservative, liberal, libertarian – never want to address, because after all those selfish and incompetent people vote, and you do not call your voters to account for their failures.

#16 Comment By Weldon On May 12, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

@Arnold, the school violence rate today is lower than it was in the 1960s; you can’t seriously think today’s schools are “abattoirs”.

#17 Comment By Zach On May 12, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

As a public high school history teacher in Tennessee, I would like to see many of the vague but generally desirable reforms the author lists, but @Tiber raises important questions about pay and evaluations. I would like to see tenure done away with, but given the complexity of my professional work, and the education and training necessary to doing so, I should be adequately compensated. Put simply, I am not. Republican-dominated state legislatures and cash-strapped local districts seem however to prefer simple “choice” alternatives to deeper, more meaningful reform (which entails more expensive, more thoughtful systemic changes) that examines the authenticity of students’ learning experiences and the support teachers need to make their instruction and assessment for relevant and meaningful.

#18 Comment By Brian O’Leary On May 12, 2017 @ 11:33 pm

Here are 9 reasons that may have a little more teeth:

1) Call them government schools. That is what they are. Schools, in general, are “public” in nature. The schools we are talking about here are run by government…tyranny in action.
2) Don’t concern yourself with shattering unions or classes of people or folks that depend on these jobs. Most teachers are actually great people and most of them are pretty good at their job despite the systemic corruption and malfeasance when it comes to the education and welfare of our children.
3) The “system” of government education is unable to be reformed. It needs to be abolished. Not should be abolished…needs to be abolished. It does not benefit the student (even though it benefits many others within the “system”).
4) Teachers should be paid a market rate. Perhaps the market rate to teach at one school is zero and another is $1 million. The market can inform decision-making in many ways.
5) Eliminate the certification requirements. This would only be reasonable if you had market rate teachers who would be compensated for their knowledge and ability. Maybe a certification or two would help, but it wouldn’t have to be mandatory.
6) Eliminate all government funding of so-called education. These “schools” do a poor job at educating the student. Give families the ability to find a school for their child’s needs with the extra money they will have that is not extracted from them by government. A free market for education would help everyone involved except for the bureaucratic and administrative levels…which is perfectly fine.
7) Recognize that “public education” probably did work well for a time, but also recognize that the last time was several decades ago. It is worthwhile for folks to have pride in a system that once worked, yet that does not mean we should praise the same edifice as it crumbles.
8) Government schools are not a “public good” or a “public need.” They are nuisances. Tax money going to support nuisances is ridiculous.
9) “The fact that by international standards the students are innumerate and by the national standards of a hundred years ago illiterate” is not beside the point, it is the entire point.

#19 Comment By Lee On May 13, 2017 @ 11:47 pm

Considering disruptive behavior is one of the major contributors to teacher stress, along with dealing with the emotionally immature children we often erroneously refer to as parents. Driving prescription drug use amongst educators, self-medicating, nervous breakdowns, and leaving the profession to preserve their sanity.

My vote is to abolish the Public system all together.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 14, 2017 @ 10:57 am

I would love to pipe in here about schools and what it would take to make rememdy where remedy is needed.

But I think this conversation is undermined by the last twenty of years of critical thinking demonstrated on multiple levels.

1. Men and women are the same and biology doesn’t matter.

2. Marriage between men and women is the sam as marriage between two individuals of the same gender.

3. Iraq should be invaded despite evidence of any threat.

4. Afghanistan should be invaded because the entire Taliban was responsible for 9/11. Taking a good look at the government structure, it’s they had no clue and we could have gotten Bin Laden via other methods — most likely sooner.

5. The Russians effectively interfered with the election fr the US presidency.

6. The answer to emotional safety is not strengthening one’s psyche’, but banning texts that might confront those concerns.

7. If you hold a view political or otherwise that is unpopular in a community, you should be terminated.

8. There’s a war on police.

9. The way to advance change is to attack those who make decisions, intimidate by acts of violence.

10. There’s a war on women.

11. There’s a vast rape culture.

12. The exceptional nature of the US makes it the US the moral arbiter of world events and actors.

13. The US stole the southwest.

14. Women are more peaceful than men.

The people who have been making these arguments and engage in this form of rhetoric devoid of much in the way of veracity, evidence, layered critical thought, accuracy, honesty, etc.

But this is what exists as the norm in colleges, think tanks, politicians, lawyers, corporate ceo’s and staff, admin., college instructors and last but not least teachers.

There’s some real problems in education and it being manifested by people in leadership. The message is clear. Veracity is not dependent on content but power and or being on the right team.

I dare not mention the utter mayhem challenging climate change, once global warming.

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 14, 2017 @ 11:00 am

If the people expected to advance educational improvement are the same people espousing the above

I fear the battle is lost.

#22 Comment By Eliana On May 15, 2017 @ 9:14 am

It doesn’t say here that the author of this article has any experience working in a public school.

It that is true, it means his knowledge of what it is like to teach in a public school or to work in any capacity in a public school day-to-day is purely theoretical.

My suggestion is that anyone who wants to be a public education policy pundit (or PEPP) should first spend at least a week alone at the helm of a typical public school classroom in a typical public school somewhere in our great nation, fulfilling all of the responsibilities of that position for that period of time.

It would be highly interesting if this article’s author would do so and then report back.

It should not be that hard to arrange. He could become a substitute teacher and make himself available for a week-long assignment for some teacher who is out for surgery, say.

And then he could write up something for us about his experience. And we could see precisely how self-assuredly PEPP-y he would be then.