Public Schools Need Fewer Mandates, Parents Need More Choices
Over the past year, the Normandy School District has grabbed the state’s attention, and for good reason. Little more than half of the district’s students graduate on time. For those that do, the prospects are slim. Of the 125 Normandy students who took the ACT in 2014, just eight performed as well as or better than the national average. The composite ACT score was a paltry 16, not good enough for most state colleges.
While it is useful to examine what is happening in Normandy, it can distract us from problems in all Missouri schools. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), just 35 percent of Missouri fourth graders are reading on grade level. Roughly a third of our college students take remediation courses. Missouri public schools are having an incredibly tough time carrying out their primary directive—educate students. Yet, some look at our schools and want them to do more.
It seems every interest group, lobbyist, and legislator with a particular hobby horse wants to require schools to include their issue in their curriculum. Currently, legislators are calling for more bullying prevention programs and for an increased emphasis on civics education. Add those issues to sex education, gun control or gun awareness, criticisms of evolution, global warming, and a host of other topics that have been touted in recent years, and it’s easy to see that schools are being inundated by agendas.
While each of the issues mentioned could have value for Missouri’s K-12 students (that is really a subjective opinion), mandating new requirements for Missouri public schools is likely to cause mission creep, distract from efforts to teach students to read and do math, and cause controversy. Public schools already struggle to educate Missouri’s children. Diverting resources to new mandates would exacerbate the fundamental issue that our schools face.
Like lawmakers, parents have their own mandates and demands for the schools. Whether at the state or local level, however, we are never going to agree on all of the things that schools should do. The solution is not more mandates, the solution is more choice.
Instead of dictating what schools should do, lawmakers should focus their attention on giving parents more educational options. Allow parents to choose the school that most closely aligns with their values and their sense of mission, whether the school is private, public charter, or traditional public. We cannot make sure that every school caters to every family’s needs and preferences, but we can make sure every family has the ability to choose the school that comes closest.
Simply layering mandates on top of one another will not solve any of our educational problems, and it will not improve the educational system. A system built around school choice, however, has a better chance at both. It will allow individuals to choose the school that meets their needs, without forcing their will on others. Choice also will help create a system of continual improvement, which leads to increased efficiency.
We cannot mandate our way to a system that meets everyone’s needs. The more we try, the further we erode a local school’s ability to adapt, innovate, and meet the individual needs of the students it serves. It’s time to stop asking schools to do more and more. It’s time to start allowing parents to choose.