Time To Rescue Our Young Adults?

The crisis afflicting young adults in America today is a well-documented phenomenon that statistics sometimes seem inadequate to document.  Rising rates of drug and alcohol use, STD’s, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thought and action cannot in and of themselves adequately describe the desperate state of those who should now be living the most exciting years of their lives—not gulping pizza and Prozac while blearily staring at their phones.

Many commentaries have been written to attempt to explain this generational problem that affects many—but certainly not all—young American adults.  Explanations run the course from poor parenting that is (depending on the writer) either neglectful or overly involved, prevalent racism, rampant sexism, toxic masculinity, violence, intrusive technology, or even Donald Trump.  Although young adults can be negatively affected by these factors and many more too numerous to count, the systemic problems seem to suggest a more global explanation is needed.

How broad based are the problems affecting those who are just starting their life journey—and often crashing and burning?  According to a 2017 Pentagon study, only 29% percent of young adults who are eligible to join the military actually qualify; the other 71% are disqualified because they are obese, have no high school diploma, or already have compiled a criminal record. The American Psychological Associations Journal of Abnormal Psychology reports that in the past 10 to 12 years, the number of 18-25 year olds reporting symptoms indicative of major depression increased 63%, and serious psychological distress and suicide-related thoughts or actions rose by 70%.  A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that Millennials, who today are 18 to 34 years old, make 43 percent less than what Gen Xers made in 1995 when they were under 35 years old.  “Don’t be a fool, stay in school”?  The average young adult now accrues over $33,000 in student loan debt, and roughly 4 of 10 will never actually complete the degree they seek.

When all is said and done, maybe firing up a doobie and binge watching Game of Thrones with a bag of Cheetos isn’t such a bad idea, but the question now is what can we do get our troubled young people back on track.  I have three proposals:

Stop medicating our young instead of helping them

The rise in the number children who are growing up with the handy help of a doctor’s prescription pad is startling—in the extreme. Data from the IQVia Total Patient Tracker Database for 2017 shows that well over 15 million children and adolescents were receiving psychiatric medication for diagnoses ranging from ADHD to anxiety during just that year alone.  Given that these are powerful mind and mood altering drugs being pumped into immature and developing brains—and researchers have long been aware of the unpredictable (and largely unstudied) dangers posed to young minds by these drugs—our extraordinary reliance on substituting pills for patient and consistent adult protection and guidance is simply beyond belief.  

Pharmaceutical companies have misused the inherent trust of the public for the medical profession to convince tens of millions of parents to turn their children into guinea pigs for the most amazing uncontrolled experiment with mind-altering drugs in the history of humanity.  The long term consequences for the children unwillingly enrolled in this stupendously lucrative drug trial are unknown, but it does not take much imagination to guess at the catastrophic—and perhaps permanent—effects powerful psychoactive drugs can have on the fragile chemistry of young minds as they develop into young adulthood.

It might be just a little more difficult to grow up healthy and happy after a childhood and adolescence spent as a lab rat for Big Pharma.  Are we, sad to say, sending chemically damaged brains careening into the many challenges of young adulthood—and do we need to immediately stop doing this?

Accept the fact—finally—that our current system of public education is beyond repair

John Wayne is often erroneously credited with stating the obvious: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.”  The academic outcomes of our K-12 public education system, the deficiencies of which have been chronicled with mind numbing regularity for many decades, have been impervious to reform because our schools are paycheck, contract, and pension machines—and lots of people are making buck on mediocrity.  Ensconced behind an impervious wall of legislation and regulation designed to ensure that the adults are well served, public schools provide daycare, food, recreation, and places for students, staff, and faculty to charge their cell phones.  We should expect much, much more.  

Although some students certainly still succeed and pockets of educational excellence still exist in our public schools, the students who most need their schools to provide a hand up—those who are poor, those who are minority, and those who have difficult lives—are often ruthlessly shoved down after being shunted into Special Education or remedial classes where their chances of catching up with their peers academically are vanishingly small.  A typical arc after receiving a worthless high school diploma is an unsuccessful semester or two at college followed by a lifetime that is severely circumscribed by the academic deficiencies that were never addressed.  To fail so many students is a national scandal, and to continue to blame students and their families for these failures is nothing other than sublime cruelty.

As part of a commentary posted on December 13 of 2015 on my blog (andrewmwilk.com), I wrote the following concerning what I thought would be the most effective way to improve Illinois’ public schools:

“I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our states entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school—public, private, or religious—anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their [standardized test] scores and school grades.

In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.”

I still believe it is the best course of action for Illinois—and I believe the same is true for every school in our nation—but I am not counting on it happening any time soon.  As long as the National Education Association has a single dollar left in its bank account to use to bribe legislators (in the form of campaign contributions), we will continue on just as we have for decades regarding education reform—all talk and little or no action.

Refocus our attention

There are plenty of engaging and urgent concerns affecting every square inch of our planets flora and fauna, but perhaps we need to lift our eyes and focus more of our outrage and concern on a much broader canvas of human behavior and human pain.  To continue to note the struggles experienced by many young adults but not make addressing them a top national priority seems a short-sighted and self-destructive course of action that will harm individuals and families, weaken our economy, place our national security at risk, and destroy the fabric of our democracy and civic life.

It is astounding that so many Americans are more likely to respond to the struggles of a distressed tree or injured dog than those of a overwhelmed young mother or traumatized young man, but perhaps it is simple human nature to prefer issues that avoid human messiness or contradictions and so seem more easily managed and solved.  The task of rescuing our troubled young adults is an enormous undertaking.  Even the most cursory examination and discussion of the catastrophe afflicting so many of them reveals that the problems are both complex and multi-faceted.  

However, with all due respect to the problems experienced by whales, wild flowers, and wildebeests, it might be time to concentrate our energies on assisting a huge segment of our own human population that is in deep distress right now and in need of our help and understandingbefore it is too late.

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In Defense Of Homework

Over the past several decades, although there have been sporadic attempts to revive it as a classroom practice, homework has largely disappeared from K-12 instruction.  The memories many grandparents might have of laboring to finish all homework assignments before bedtime are totally at odds with current pedagogical theory that deems homework the enemy of the innate intellectual curiosity within each child.  Therefore, aside from the most piddling homework that is occasionally still part of elementary school educational practice—often assigned for the sole purpose of encouraging parental involvement in a child’s education—most students can presume their day is done when the final bell rings.

Homework has few fans these days.  Students hate to do it because it interferes with their texting and video time, parents hate it because it requires their time and attention, and teachers hate it because designing it and grading it is very time consuming.  Moreover, the progressive professors who have long been entrenched in our nation’s graduate schools of education—and who make certain yet more of their ilk receive tenure each and every day—have deemed homework the bane of “authentic” learning, which apparently springs only from those activities that conscientiously avoid memorizing facts, practicing skills, or intensive study.  The consequence of this focus on avoiding the sheer grunt work involved with learning has been generations of high school graduates whose most notable characteristic has been a stupendous ignorance of even the most basic knowledge of the world around them.  Anyone who has taught at the college level has quickly learned through harsh experience that presuming even the most cursory topic background knowledge when starting a class is a grave mistake—and will guarantee a lot of blank stares unless you fill in the blank minds in advance.

Homework has also collided headlong with intense pressures now put on many K-12 educators to pass every student.  The equation is a simple one: No student will bother to do their homework unless a grade in involved + reducing a student’s grade for not completing their homework will create problems with school principals and parents = no homework will be assigned.  Wasn’t that easy?  Nobody has to do any work, and everyone passes their classes.  Happy students, happy parents, happy administrators, and happy school board members can proudly point to the “success” that results from crushingly low expectations regarding teaching and learning.  Are you concerned about those terrible scores on the ACT and SAT tests that your students routinely bomb?  Don’t be!  Some students are lousy test takers, the test is only a snapshot of student progress, and everyone knows those awful standardized tests are inherently discriminatory.  Got that?  Besides, colleges and universities are now so starved for students that many are now ditching the standardized test requirements in favor of admission criteria that purport to evaluate the whole wonderfulness of applicants—so we’re all cool.

Of course, the only problem with this system is that most colleges and universities are only too happy to take a student’s money—regardless whether their academic preparation is sufficient.  The nationwide bloom of “Developmental” courses in higher education, which translates into colleges tuition but no college credits, has led to a continual churn of students who accumulate academic debt but never earn an academic degree.  There is a reason that the 6 year graduate rate at 2 year colleges hovers around 39%.

Better models of college remediation have resulted in improvements for those students whose reading, writing, and math skills require only nominal improvement, but the reality for the most academically challenged first-year college students, who often have graduated from the most deficient school systems, has remained the same because a single semester typically cannot teach all that was not mastered during 13 years of being pencil whipped through public school.  We can readily help students who need more practice with using source materials to support a line of reasoning in an essay; unfortunately, those students who did not learn to even write their own names until eighth grade (true story!) have likely already had their academic futures destroyed by K-12 systems that were intent on graduating them—no matter what.  Isn’t it great they don’t have to waste their time doing any of that pointless homework?

However, perhaps the most devastating consequence of the argument against homework is one that is discussed very little—if at all—and it concerns the fundamental difference between the nature of K-12 learning and that of higher education.  

Because K-12 essentially functions as state-sponsored daycare, the school day is long, and there is ample opportunity to complete assignments during daily classes, which generally feature a substantial amount of non-instructional downtime.  A college class might, in contrast, have only 40 total hours of professor-student (or graduate assistant-student) contact time, and this might occur in a large lecture class with a couple of hundred students.  As a result, most class assignments and study must be completed outside of class, which means that 2 hours or more of independent work time must be completed for every hour in a classroom.  What will happen to that eager new college student if they have no experience with working outside of class time because their K-12 instruction featured no homework?

The end result for students who are utterly unprepared for the self-study and self-monitoring required in higher education is often a first semester flame out.  Not understanding until it is too late that a full course load translates into a full-time job, many freshman overcommit to outside work and extra-curricular activities, which results in an anguished trip to academic advising and multiple course withdrawals that immediately put their financial aid eligibility into jeopardy.  

To combat this problem many colleges are pushing Developmental course models that require extra classroom time in order to, in essence, create supervised study hall periods where students can complete their class work, or students are forced to check into a monitored campus study center each week as part of the course they are taking.  Academic coaches also remind students of the need to study and work outside of class, which can be helpful for some but still requires students to acquire the independent work habits that K-12 failed to impart—on the fly and under intense pressure.  The pain of the “no homework” philosophy that rules our nation’s public schools is borne entirely by those who graduate unprepared for the opportunity to succeed or fail based on their own study skills—or lack thereof.

I suspect that those who criticize young adults for a lack of work ethic or personal responsibility may sometimes be unaware of how terrifying it is for many to be independent with no practice at working or studying independently.  Want to help more young adults succeed in higher education—and life?  Try a little homework in K-12 to help more young people develop the study skills, personal accountability, and self-efficacy that will later help immeasurably.  It may cause a few students—and parents—to whine and complain, but it might be the greatest possible kindness in the long run.

The Privilege Walk Of Life

The college admission scandal now consuming our news cycle speaks to the many contradictions that now confuse our discussions about privilege and power in America today. To be shocked that the rich are able to buy their way into opportunities closed to the average person speaks to either an enormous naïveté or ignorance about the power of wealth across the timeline of civilization. Money has always been the lubricant of choice to make life a smooth and untroubled path for the fortunate few, and the wealthy always exert outsized influence on the world around them. To presume otherwise is sheer foolishness, and this is the primary reason why those with money and power are typically obsessed with yet more money and power—it is always nice to be very, very rich.

This scandal also is an object lesson in the importance of social and cultural signifiers in a world where developing your “personal brand” is now far more important than being a thoughtful and decent individual. Given that a degree from one of the most elite colleges in the United States—the ones with the name recognition necessary to improve your coddled child’s personal brand—is now considered a critical life accessory by the fashionable elite of Hollywood stars and corporate heavyweights, it should not be a surprise that a well-paid industry of fixers exists to plow the road to admission. A CEO whose child has to settle for a degree at a state college in East Podunk sees this “failure” an implicit rebuke of the parenting abilities of mommy and daddy, so such a sad state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to exist. Bring before me the “consultants” who will ensure my spoiled scion will succeed and reflect well on me!

However, this scandal perhaps most clearly points out our misunderstandings about privilege—and who actually has it—in America today.

Several years ago a former colleague related to me the dismal failure of the “privilege walk” she had her students complete. For those who are unfamiliar with this activity, it requires individuals to stand in a line and then take steps forward or backward based on “privileges” granted them by society. Below is a list of these privileges and deficits (you might want to grab a cup of coffee first), courtesy of Pennsylvania State University:

  • ​If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back.
  • If your primary ethnic identity is “American,” take one step forward.
  • If you were ever called names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If there were people who worked for your family as servants, gardeners, nannies, etc. take one step forward.
  • ​If you were ever ashamed or embarrassed of your clothes, house, car, etc. take one step back.
  • If one or both of your parents were “white collar” professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc. take one step forward.
  • If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, etc., take one step back.
  • If you ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms, or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step back.
  • If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.
  • If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back.
  • If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food when you were growing up, take one step back.
  • If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take one step forward
  • ​If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back.
  • If you have health insurance take one step forward.
  • If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward.
  • If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back.
  • If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back
  • ​If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you have a disability take one step backward.
  • If you were raised in a single parent household, take one step back.
  • If your family owned the house where you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you saw members of your race, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back.
  • If you own a car take one step forward.
  • If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever denied employment because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were paid less, treated less fairly because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever accused of cheating or lying because of your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward.
  • If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back.
  • If you attended private school at any point in your life take one step forward.
  • If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever afraid of violence because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If your parents own their own business take one step forward.
  • If you were generally able to avoid places that were dangerous, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.
  • ​If you use a TDD Phone system take one step backward.
  • If you were ever the victim of violence related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • Imagine you are in a relationship, if you can get married in the State of ___ take one step forward
  • If your parents did not grow up in the United States, take one step back.
  • If your parents attended college take one step forward.
  • If your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward.
  • If you are able to take a step forward or backward take two steps forward.

Quite a long list, to say the least….

Apparently some of my former colleague’s students vociferously and angrily objected to many of the items on this list (or one similar to it) because they felt these simply reflected wise or responsible life choices made by themselves or their parents and grandparents rather than some inherited “privilege” that is presumed to be unearned and unfair. Of course, those who believe in the veracity of this exercise would assert such an annoyed or disbelieving reaction is proof of an inborn sense of entitlement that is the result of privilege, so a discussion of the individual items on the list might be considered by some to be beside the point. However, there does seem to be cause for reasonable questions about the benefit of this exercise and the purpose of some of the items used. For example, a reliance on public transportation is perhaps more indicative of whether you live in a city rather than the sometimes dubious privilege of individual car ownership.

There are, of course, items on this list that perhaps reflect a tougher road ahead for some because they touch upon issues of discrimination or disability that obviously speak to challenges that no one wants to face, but the overall problem with the exercise might be that it focuses on “micro” rather than “macro” issues that affect success and failure—and some important problems are curiously omitted.

It is surprising that being a victim of sexual abuse or violence is not included—only the threat is mentioned in this list—but it could be the case that the authors wanted to avoid prompting any uncomfortable self-disclosures in a classroom setting. However, it is well known that victims of sexual assaults, which sometimes sadly begin in childhood, are at far greater risk of depression, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation or attempts that add up to a far greater loss of “privilege” than whether your parents rented instead of owned your home as a child. Moreover, it is surprising that no direct mention is made of household income as a child. Although some items, such as summer camp attendance or household servants, might function as effective proxies for family wealth, there are still too many individual variables—maybe your summer camp was, for example, designated specifically for low-income children—to make a completely reliable connection.

What this type of list also fails to recognize is that privilege is often a more multifaceted conundrum. Sheer physical attractiveness or athletic skill opens a great many doors for a great many people—and to refuse to acknowledge this seems shortsighted. In addition, basic intelligence—or the lack thereof—is a significant precursor of both academic and career success. Moreover, the implication that a multi-lingual upbringing presents an all-but-certain life deficit also seems unsupportable when applied across a broad population. What about those who leverage their foreign language skills into well-paid positions in business?

However, one item does seem to me to be highly predictive of the type of privilege that many find both frustrating and disheartening: “If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.”

Moving back to the college admission scandal now in the news, the mastermind of this scam did not have a billboard up on the highway offering to help bribe Ivy League team coaches or assist students with cheating on their SAT tests—wealthy parents learned about this “service” through word of mouth networks comprised of other wealthy friends and family. As with a great deal of what has passed for “privilege” since the dawn of civilization, most life advantage accrues through personal connections who provide inside information: the stock tip, the job opening that has not been advertised, the great deal on an expensive purchase, the zoning change that is suddenly going to increase the value of a piece of property. These conversations that are leveraged into more money, power, and influence are impossible to track—and unavailable to all but the most privileged few. As a result, the highest circles of power in most societies tend to be both self-perpetuating and supremely exclusionary. Prejudices and poverty obviously impact many lives, but our understanding of privilege tends to be both overly preoccupied with labeling and oblivious to the fact that some realities have more weight than others when it comes the exercise of privilege.

These privilege walks might be an interesting activity that provides fodder for the kinds of heartfelt and clueless conversations that fill many college classrooms today, but they also demonstrate a gigantic blind spot regarding our understanding of how power, privilege, and elites actually operate. Our preoccupation with labeling one person as privileged—and another as not—tends to reinforce simplistic explanations for individual success and failure that fail to account for the many complexities of life and grotesquely understate the enormous influence of family wealth in terms of providing access to information and opportunities that are not available to the average person.

We do still, thankfully, live in a nation that generally rewards hard work and personal initiative, although government enabled—or mandated—mediocrity is a real and growing problem. Moreover, we have to recognize that laws and regulations that are written to allow the elites to invisibly and effortlessly skim money from the economy ultimately turn the American Dream into a a cruel joke for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

As long as government officials continue to trade campaign contributions for one-sided and destructive legislation that is designed to pit the poor against the slightly less poor, the lives of many Americans will continue to consist of catching the crumbs that drop from the tables of the rich and powerful. We don’t need a privilege walk; we need a People’s March against the fixers and insiders who devote their lucrative careers to robbing the many to enrich the few. That would be far more useful than expending our time and energy parsing degrees of victimhood or fighting with one another over matters that are ultimately of little or no importance to the futures of our children, families, communities, or country.

Is Free College Really The Best Idea?

One of the pillars of Democratic Party orthodoxy today is the push for free college for all.  At the state level, one of the most ambitious programs is to be found in New York, where the Excelsior Scholarship program has rendered tuition-free both 2 and 4 year public colleges throughout the state for students whose family income is under $125,000 per year.  Approximately 17 states now offer some form of free college to their residents, and it seems likely that more states will develop these sorts of programs in the years ahead.

These free college programs are not, of course, without their critics.

Many have pointed out that these programs many times actually function as a massive subsidy offered to middle class families that previously did not qualify for income-based scholarships; poor students have long paid nominalor zerotuition costs due to existing federal and state aid programs targeted to low-income students and their families.  Moreover, these free college programs are typically available only to those who attend full-time, which locks out those who need to work while attending school in order to cover their daily living expenses.  Although the college tuition might be free, students still need food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads, which may greatly restrict the use of many these free college programs.

In addition, freeis a deceptive term to use because these programs are certainly not free for taxpayers.  The New York State program, although much more limited in actual scope than advertised because of the many restrictions attached, still carries a price tag of $87 million this year alonewith costs estimated to rise to at least $163 million annually when fully implemented.

However, the fundamental problem with free college is simple and direct: Access does not equal success.  The scandalous and continuing national crisis of inadequate college preparedness at the K-12 levelwhich decades of incredibly expensive education reformhas yet to addresstranslates into a great many students starting college but failing to complete.  

How widespread is this problem?  Tennessee has for many years offered free tuition to the states community colleges at a taxpayer cost of only $45 million annuallykeeping the outlay lower by covering only that portion of tuition not already picked up by federal Pell Grants.  

However, although the costs might be relatively low for Tennessees taxpayers, there is still ample reason to question whether this is a wise investment of state funds.  Data shows that during the 2016-2017 school year nearly half of the states high school graduates required remedial coursework during their first year of collegeand nearly half had dropped out after two years.  No matter how much educators might want to try to talk their way around it by desperately pointing to other factors that sometimes affect college completion, it is plain that the promised economic and individual benefits of free college are colliding headlong with the disappointing academic preparation that is the daily reality of Americas public schools.

Therefore, looking at the soaring promises of the politicians and educators who advocate putting taxpayers even further on the hook for the costs of free college, a reasonable person might be prompted to ask if the reality is somewhat different from the rhetoricand whether the estimated $70 billion needed to fund the College For Allplans supported by many Democrats is a good use of scarce tax dollars when our national debt now tops $22 trillion.

The many well-meaning promises attached to college that is freestill will be hampered by the vast number of American high school graduates who are academically unprepared to succeed in collegefree or otherwise.  If we want these taxpayer dollars to have the impact we hope that they will, we need to be smart enoughand brave enoughto ask whether college for allactually means failure for many.  Rather than asking taxpayers to pay for college students to again try to learn material that should have been mastered in high school, perhaps a more impactful program would tie taxpayer support to documented student academic preparedness for college-level coursework.

However annoying this discussion might be for those politicians who are anxious to create yet another endlessly expensive entitlement funded by already beleaguered taxpayers, it seems sensible to ask a few difficult questions now about this hazy dream in order to prevent a great deal of money from being pointlessly wasted in the years ahead.

Higher education is important, and we now knowall too wellthat our burdensome and outrageous student loan programs have been an unmitigated disaster that has both enabled obscene increases in college costs and created a gigantic debtor class of Americans whose financial futures are terribly hobbled.  Perhaps it could be persuasively argued that any college experience is beneficial, so free college would be a worthwhile taxpayer expenseregardless of the outcomes.  This is a viewpoint deserving of careful considerationas is the idea that money spent on education can never truly be wastedin the manner that other tax dollars often are.

Nonetheless, it might be worth stopping and thinking before we rush to pay for many students to make a pit stop on a college campusonly to later leave with little learning and no credential.  College is a great experience for many, but it may be the case that we still have thinking to do about how we pay for itand whether freeis the best path forward.  Perhaps some combination of grants and merit-based scholarships will be the mix that provides the magic.  Before any further decisions are made to create a new line in the federal financial ledger, we need to carefully study the long-term experiences of state-level programsparticularly regarding the impacts on student success.

However, whatever direction we ultimately take from here, we also need to give immediate consideration to the question of how we can relieve the frightening burden of the student loans that are now ruining the lives of many.  We cannot continue to ask so many to pay for a grievous past error in government policy that became a trap for so many Americans and their families, and I believe this is the step we must first take before we decide how to help those who will attend college in the future.

The Death Of Education Reform?

Just a few years ago Democrats were playing a lead role in pushing for broad-based reform of our nation’s public schools. Using rigorous and regular testing of student academic progress to generate the necessary data, money and resources were poured into a “moon shot” effort to make quality education available to all children by turning government and private philanthropy into partners in creating a new paradigm for a national public education system that seemed unable to shake off its bureaucratic mindset and incrementalism. Billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars and private wealth washed into our nation’s public schools, and the high hopes attached to all this money seemed a sure sign that monumental changes were at hand.

Watching the momentum for K-12 education reform now grinding to a screeching halt around the nation, one cannot help but be struck by the shocking efforts of so many leading Democrats to now reduce or de-emphasize academic assessments, roll back charter schools, and embrace the ossified civil service approach of the nation’s teacher unions.

Were reformers fooling themselves all along regarding the possibilities for dramatic progress?

Even putting aside the strong political headwinds now facing school reform advocates, the sad truth of the matter is that change always required a willingness to both stand up to the political power of teacher unions and aggressively deregulate public education in order to introduce real market incentives—and market risk—to a system that both has historically been run according to the priorities of teacher unions and is populated by many teachers and administrators who have no interest at all in abandoning their entrenched civil service protections.

Improvements in the quality and academic outcomes of our nation’s public schools was also always an uphill fight because resistance to reforms was made all the easier by the extraordinary “local control” baked into our nation’s tens of thousands of autonomous public school districts, which have shown themselves to be largely impervious to any changes beyond the most cosmetic simply by virtue of their sheer numbers. The net result is that school reformers have spent decades banging their heads into a brick wall of fantastically fragmented bureaucratic obstinacy designed to protect well-paid but marginally competent teachers and administrators who find any effort to quantify outcomes, develop cost-benefit analyses, or (gasp!) insist upon accountability antithetical to their mutual goals of ironclad job security and guaranteed salary enhancement.

The real lesson of the past several decades of education reform is as simple as can be: You cannot force changes upon a system that has little real interest in what passionate—but too often ineffectual—reformers are trying to sell. It is always easier for the education insiders to insist that the problems with student learning are due to external societal and cultural factors, so miserable academic outcomes cannot be blamed on the schools themselves.

However, the challenge today facing reformers is the increasingly close relationship between teacher unions and the Democratic Party. Unless this is somehow severed right now, real reforms will continue to be measured with an eye dropper in the decades to come.

How close is the relationship between teacher unions and the Democratic Party? The numbers tell the story. During the 2018 elections, 95% of the over $30 million dollars they contributed to political parties and candidates went to Democrats. Of course, driven by high profile races in Texas, Florida, and Georgia, this amount was dwarfed by total 2018 election spending that topped $5.2 billion, but teacher unions also provided large and reliable voting blocs in key races and contributed countless in-kind resources to Democratic candidates. The net result of this political symbiosis is that the matter most important to teacher unions—growing their base of dues-paying members—is also rapidly become a driving issue of the Democratic Party.

The most obvious element of the alliance between Democrats and teacher unions is a renewed national push to halt the growth of charter schools, which offer tuition-free alternatives for families that cannot afford private schools. Whether or not charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated, provide better educational outcomes for students—and there is a great deal of hard and persuasive evidence that this is indeed the case—seems to be a tangential concern at the moment. The crux of the matter is that more charter schools translates into fewer teachers paying union dues. Union leaders, feeling besieged after the Janus decision by the Supreme Court struck down state mandates for “fair share” dues across the nation, now seem resolutely determined to reverse the national growth of charter schools. The rumblings are growing louder in many states, although supporters of charter schools have also mobilized to defend parent choice, but we have just seen the most dramatic move in what is likely to be a long and divisive battle in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school system—and until only recently a major booster of charter schools.

Having just settled a teacher strike with a new contract that has already been deemed financially unsustainable, the LAUSD Board of Education has now voted to declare a moratorium on the growth of charter schools. The 225 charter schools in Los Angeles now serve 23% of the district’s students—112,000 young people whose parents chose to remove them from the city’s troubled public schools. This has long been a sore point for national teacher unions, who see the rapid growth of charter schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere as an existential threat. Is it simply a coincidence that this shocking reversal happened in the most heavily Democratic state in the nation, one that provides 20% of the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives? Should we be surprised that the often tearful pleas of Los Angeles parents, who were thrilled with the quality of the educations that their children are now receiving, were completely ignored by school board members, many of whom owe their seats to Democratic support?

The political battle lines have hardened in recent years, but one area where politics should be set aside is the desire of every parent to find the school that best fits the needs of their child. Charter schools have offered many poor and middle-class parents an avenue to help their children escape blighted public schools that were robbing them of their right to a quality education. To insist that these children, and more to follow, must hope and pray that their school will be spared from today’s political gamesmanship is both cruel and destructive. The national movement toward school choice—of which charter schools are certainly the most important single component—should not be rolled back so that teacher unions can sign up some more dues-paying members.

The dreams of parents and students for the brighter futures that charter schools can provide must be respected, nurtured, and supported. To do otherwise would be the worst possible betrayal.