Reform Public Schools Rather than Abandon Them
In a recent article, conservative titan Dennis Prager argued that American parents need to pull their children out of public schools if they want to save the country. According to him, nearly all of the country’s ills originate with an immoral educational system that systematically corrupts the youth. Thus, he argues that “the single best thing Americans can do to counter the left-wing attack on America… is to take their children out of America’s schools.”
Although this argument resonates with many conservatives who are all too familiar with the many abuses and failures of public schools, it is a laughably simplistic and flawed argument—and I say this not only as a public school teacher, but a great admirer of Mr. Prager.
To begin, with complex issues like education, it’s important to define the problem clearly and accurately. But Prager ignores all this and speaks in generalizations. Without so much as citing one study or report, he asserts that nearly all schools indoctrinate students with radical leftist ideology: “They rarely teach them, for example, art or music because they are too busy teaching them race-centered hatred of whites, of America, and of America’s values.”
He also asserts (again, without real evidence) that public schools deprive young people of a rigorous education. Prager challenges his readers, “Ask your college son or daughter to diagram a sentence; identify Joseph Stalin, The Gulag Archipelago or the Soviet Union; name the branches of the American government; identify—or just spell—Ludwig van Beethoven; date the U.S. Civil War; identify the Holocaust; and name which sentence is correct—’He gave the book to my friend and me’ or, ‘He gave the book to my friend and I.’” Evidently, if young people falter in their grammar rules, Russian literature, classical composers, or pinpointing various moments in history, they are hopeless idiots.
Even if one gave Prager the benefit of the doubt and assumed that leftist indoctrination and academic rigor are problems, it is unclear what the nature and the extent of these problems actually are. What does he mean exactly by leftist indoctrination? And how many schools are overrun with it? Similarly, what does he mean when he refers to “poorly educated students”? Is it really kids who can’t recite certain facts, or kids who lack fundamental skills like reading and computation? And again, how many students are poorly educated in his estimation?
Because these problems are never clearly defined, Prager’s solution to them makes little sense. What would this achieve? And how realistic is it to expect the majority of parents to homeschool their children while they wait for schools to get their act together? Prager adds to the confusion by creating a false dilemma, telling his readers they have no choice but to homeschool: “Other than a) finding a good school that b) you can afford, you have no other choice.”
Are most public schools really so bad that it would be better for children to stop attending them? Students experienced this very thing when schools shut down because of COVID-19, and it wasn’t pretty. While some students did well with a homeschool setup, most students floundered and effectively lost a year of instruction. Contrary to what Prager assumes, students are much worse off not attending school, even if it’s a mediocre one.
That said, Prager isn’t wrong to suggest that public schools have a problem when it comes to pushing leftism and inadequately educating students. It should concern all Americans that despite enjoying much higher funding and more resources than elsewhere, American schools still rank lower than those in other countries. Additionally, while students in other nations learn to speak multiple languages fluently and master advanced calculus, it’s infuriating to see teachers in the U.S. have their students learn to view the world through a leftist lens and master victimhood.
Instead of addressing these problems, too many educational leaders try to recast them as solutions, creating a vicious cycle. Evidence of poor academic performance causes these leaders to use leftist materials and strategies as a remedy since they promise more relevance and engagement. However, this brand of instruction is usually shallow, unrigorous, and factually warped, making students even more ignorant and incompetent. This then leads to district leaders doubling down on their mistakes in order to fix the problem they just made worse.
Naturally, there are other cases where otherwise good schools decide to go woke for virtue-signaling purposes, or bad schools continue to poorly serve their students despite explicitly avoiding progressive agendas. Leftism and bad instruction aren’t necessarily tied together, and when it comes to fixing these issues, it’s best to treat them separately.
Whatever the case might be, it’s possible to reform public schools without withdrawing students en masse. And considering the great expense that taxpayers have invested in public education, regardless of their own children’s enrollment status—especially in progressive states that have adopted explicitly leftist messaging in their instruction, from about $7,000 per student in Utah to $35,000 in New York—it would be far better to reform the system than reject it altogether in a futile effort to start a new system from scratch.
Specifically, there are three ways to accomplish this: parents becoming more vocal, advancing school choice, and working with educators instead of unfairly condemning them.
The first way to reform schools is relatively easy. Parents who want their children to learn something and not be indoctrinated should say as much. This has happened in many districts with parents sounding off at school board meetings, particularly about critical race theory, and as a result, many districts have steered clear of adopting it.
Parents should follow up on this success and make a point of communicating with teachers and principals. If a teacher is using his classroom as a platform to air his political views, or he is neglecting his class altogether and showing movies every day, a simple call or email will often fix this. Otherwise, teachers and principals will assume everything is fine.
The second way to reform schools, advancing school choice, will take more time but is still critical. It begins with public schools offering choices through advanced academics, career training, and well-supported extracurricular programs. Then, choice is expanded with the introduction of magnet schools, specialized academies, charter schools, and private schools. Finally, and this is the goal, public funding follows the students and gives all parents, rich or poor, a choice in what schools their children attend.
When choices are taken away in the name of equity, this results in a complete lack of accountability for public schools. The neighborhood school continues to fail students because it can, and working class parents have no choice but to send their kids there. When it comes to voting, parents should remember that it is Democrats who continue to defend this situation.
However, before people take any action or push any policies, they should change their attitude about educators. Not only is ridiculing them as a bunch of brainwashed, lazy nitwits beholden to teachers’ unions wrong, it is also deeply counterproductive.
Teachers aren’t the problem; they are the solution. Like any other professional, teachers simply want to be effective and do a good job. That’s why this past school year—dealing with virtual classes and paperless instruction—was so miserable. Most of us become educators because we want to empower kids with knowledge and skills, not so that we can keep them ignorant and convert them to our way of thinking.
While Prager is wrong in his claims about how to reform education, he is right to suggest that education is key to changing the culture. If parents can commit to taking the three aforementioned approaches to reforming public education, they really will see a huge change in American culture. Young people will be smarter, happier, and more independent, and their elders can rest easy leaving the world in capable hands.
American decline is not inevitable. It can be reversed if people focus their efforts, not just their frustrations, on the things that matter.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an MA in Humanities and an MEd in Educational Leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for the Federalist, the American Thinker, Crisis magazine, The American Conservative, and the Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.