America’s Public Schools Are A Dumpster Fire—But They Must Be Saved

I taught at both the high school and college levels for 16 years after a career working in the advertising, newspaper, and health insurance businesses.  I started writing about the problems with our educational systems 15 years ago because I hoped that attention would bring much-needed reforms to our public schools, many of which had already degenerated into little more than stupendously overpriced daycare with a smidgen of academics dropped on top.

Anyone who has paid the least attention to the many deficiencies that plague public education is well aware that we graduate millions of functional illiterates every year.  These young adults have been pencil whipped through 13 years of classes with passing grades in order to keep high school graduation rates—the single most easily manipulated measure of “success”—nice and high so that few parents ever wise up to the reality that their children have been set adrift in a tough and competitive world without the academic skills necessary to succeed.

We spend hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars annually on elementary and secondary schools that function as jobs programs for the marginally competent, and national teacher unions work hand in glove with Democrats across America to ensure that civil service job protections, mind-numbing regulatory adminis-trivia, and jargon-heavy and obtuse outcome metrics obscure the truth of their catastrophic educational failures.

Although there are many hard-working and dedicated teachers who do their best each day to help the children and adolescents in their classrooms, they can do little working within a system that is irredeemably broken, sunk deep in a bureaucratic morass divorced from any rational ideas regarding teaching and learning, overly focused on today’s Woke and wacky social fashions, top heavy with administrators instead of educators, and intent on laying blame for its failures outside of the schoolhouse door.  Trying to reform our nation’s broken public school system—however well meaning the intentions might be—is like spending time and money wallpapering a house with no roof, broken windows, and a rotted foundation.  Don’t waste your time.

We are, in fact, at the point where a complete tear down and rebuild is likely necessary unless we want to simply go forward with a national system of school vouchers and let the magic of the marketplace do the job of shutting down our nation’s public schools—one by one. Given the opportunity and money to pursue a better educational option, many families will take their school funding and race to enroll their children in private schools, parochial schools, and parent-led learning pods.  The fury with which teacher unions battle against every bit of legislation that broadens school choice is a testament to an outmoded model of public education that is dying due to its own ineptitude, denial, and lack of accountability—and is today being kept alive only by the politicians being bribed with campaign contributions.

However, ineptitude, denial, and a lack of accountability goes both ways, and the mass exodus of teachers across America—with almost all states now reporting dire problems finding anyone willing to stand in front of a classroom—speaks to the appalling working conditions in many of our nation’s public schools.

If your customers are free to verbally abuse and harass the employees every day without any meaningful consequences, physical and emotional safety is open to question with each passing minute, and 10% of your employees are actually assaulted every year by your customers—known, in this case, as your students—you’re definitely going to have a hard time recruiting workers.  Until state and federal legislators and our courts get it through their heads that teachers deserve a safe and respectful workplace just as much as someone working at Costco, our public school systems are going to remain in a free fall, and the very best college graduates and career switchers will perceive any employment in education as the worst jobs to have.  Listening to the clueless solutions proposed by those who have never taught in a public school, it is little wonder problems that have been decades in the making have only grown worse with each passing year.

The Covid-19 shutdowns did not break our schools; they only laid bare their pre-existing problems for all to see.  However, our nation’s public schools, which are now infested with every equity and social justice insanity imaginable, cannot be allowed to simply disappear.  Rural students are unlikely to have any other educational avenues because of low population density, and the options available in urban districts are typically unaffordable for poor and middle class families even with a school voucher because more affluent parents routinely bid up the tuition.  Although suburban school districts are likely to offer more—and more affordable—private and parochial choices to their local schools, they are also likely to cherry pick the most desirable students and leave the public schools stuck with the task of trying to help the most academically-deficient and troubled children and teens left behind.

Most well functioning and successful businesses (and public schools are a business) thrive when three pre-conditions are in place: the ability to recruit good employees at competitive wages, a clear and focused plan for success, and a nimble reaction to inevitable changes in the markets they serve.

Right now our nation’s public schools fail in all three of these areas because of one abundantly obvious impediment: the baleful influence of our national teacher unions.

America’s public schools are a Kafkaesque nightmare that combine the worst aspects of bureaucratic inertia, civil service sloth, and unionized pettifoggery.  If one were to spend the time creating a system that empowered a brain-dead book of rules, allowed the primary mission to get bogged down and forgotten, and drove your most dedicated employees right out the doors, it would be difficult to beat public education in our country today. 

Local communities and school boards that are conscientiously trying to improve their schools continually crash headlong into unions that make it impossible to fire lousy teachers and onerous educational regulations contrived by teacher union lobbyists that are designed to frustrate any personal initiative or reward excellent teaching.  The result is an ongoing gridlock that turns everyone associated with our public schools into co-conspirators intent on handing diplomas to every student in order to avoid exposing their scandalous abuse of parents’ trust.

It is little wonder, therefore, that so many school districts in America have graduation rates well over 90%, yet the majority of their students are scraping the bottom in terms of academic outcomes as measured by standardized tests, which are today universally reviled by those who find their results and conclusions unacceptable.

Edu-crats often reassure parents who are concerned about their children’s low standardized test scores that it is no problem because some students “just don’t test well”, and all of the wonderful brilliance of their child can not be encapsulated in a single measure.  This comforting lie has now been juiced by the further assertion that the academic expectations reflected in standardized testing are both unreasonable—and racist.  Unsurprisingly, this assertion that standardized testing is wholly evil and worthless makes many parents, students, and educators all very happy because there it eliminates the only objective measure of what is—and what is not—being learned in our nation’s public schools today.

If we ever hope to have public schools that are worthy of our admiration, two rather radical changes must take place.

First, we must recognize that the punishment of misbehaving and disruptive students, which has to include suspensions and expulsions when necessary, must be enabled and supported.  Both teaching and learning are impossible when students whose only goal is to make everyone in their school as miserable as possible are allowed to terrorize their classmates and teachers.  A safe and respectful school environment is necessary for both teaching and learning, and the misplaced “compassion” that ends up punishing every teacher who wants to teach and student who wants to learn is one of the worst aspects of the Woke ideology that pervades our schools today.

Second, any policy, regulation, or law that diminishes the power and influence of teacher unions over hiring, retention, and classroom practices must be loudly and roundly supported.

This must include the elimination of teacher tenure, which should be replaced by a system of contracts (I suggest one, three, and five year durations) that will be related to professional experience—both in and out of the classroom—and the marketplace demand for a particular subject area.  

This change—which will prompt an existential crisis among national and local teacher unions—will finally give school districts the control they need to recruit the best teachers and weed out the incompetents who are damaging students every day they are allowed to stay in a classroom.  Democrats, who are beholden to teachers and teacher unions for cash and votes, will argue this would be the end of the world.  However, can anyone honestly make the argument that the current system of lifetime employment after only a few years in the classroom has served students, communities, and our country?  On virtually every international ranking of student academic achievement, American schools finish far behind other advanced nations.  To not change what clearly does not work is madness—and partisan politics.

It is, of course, also true that ineptitude, denial, and a lack of accountability are problems plaguing all of America—not just our nation’s public schools.  Stupidity is contagious, and our political, cultural, academic, and social elites are super-spreaders of the most illogical, divisive, and immoral ideas imaginable.  It may well be the case that there is no hope for our public schools when they are forced to exist in a toxic swamp of moronic leaders and entertainers who propagandize for their foolish and harmful fantasies about America and Americans—regardless of any sense of reality or decency.  I hope this is not the case, and I believe we cannot allow despair to keep us from revolutionizing public education throughout America, but I realize that a dysfunctional nation is apt to produce equally dysfunctional schools.

However, even if the  problems plaguing our public schools are a reflection of all that is wrong in our nation today, we are still obligated to do what is necessary—in the face of the most ferocious opposition—to save our children so we can begin the long, arduous task of saving America from those seemingly intent on destroying