“Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”
From the collected works of G.K. Chesterton: The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907
G.K. Chesterton’s warning not only embodies Lord Polonius’ famous articulation "brevity is the soul of wit" from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but his sentiment is still relevant today. Mr. Chesterton’s comment could be interpreted as drawing a distinction between what some describe as education is in reality dogmatism, but his overarching concern for the manner and means of education in the first decade of the twentieth century lingers more than a hundred years later.
The questions and challenges that faced Chesterton’s era are still prevalent and they range from the fundamental to the esoteric. Among them are what is the purpose of education and how do we determine and/or define truth in education? What are the educational methods that best inform and enlighten in an unbiased manner? What are the benchmarks for a qualified teacher? How do educational methods, processes and approaches strike that delicate balance between pragmatism and idealism, that is to say what educational processes best prepare young people to have the necessary skills for employment, yet do not sacrifice the cultivation of their intellect, imagination and sense of morality? What are the federal, state and local government's roles to best serve the educational process? And, most importantly, how best to integrate and engage stakeholders such as parents and local communities into the educational decision making process?
America's educational system is one of its vital unfinished sculptures; compelling society to conserve its strengths and improve its deficiencies. There must be a constant vigil on America's education policies to ensure that it supports and advances America's rich traditions, heritage and the natural rights declared in its founding documents. With that cause in mind 2011 was a lively year when in came to education policy. Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation corralled together a nice summary of the major policies and issues affecting education. The following are highlighted excerpts from Ms. Burke’s list.
1. Year of School Choice
The most exciting educational development of the last year was captured by a Wall Street Journal editorial headline crowning 2011 “The Year of School Choice.” In 2011, more families than ever before gained access to school choice options, freeing them from assignment-by-zip code policies that often relegate families to the public school closest to their home, regardless of whether it meet their child’s needs.
2. Congress reauthorizes the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program
In 2009 and 2010, families of low-income children receiving vouchers through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program were reeling with uncertainty. The program was on its way to extinction due to language inserted in a 2009 spending bill by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). But in early 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) made it his personal mission to see that the voucher program was restored and expanded, and he successfully fought for the reauthorization of the D.C. OSP.
3. States limit collective bargaining
Education unions have long been a roadblock to reform. But in a bold move in early 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker limited the power of public sector collective bargaining in his state. Most importantly, Gov. Walker gave teachers a choice: Public school teachers can now choose whether or not to join a union.
4. Obama Administration issues No Child Left Behind waivers
Despite Congressional deliberations over NCLB’s future and thoughtful alternatives to the law put forward by the House Education and the Workforce Committee and others, the Obama Administration decided in the fall of 2011 that time was up and began an end-run around Congress. The Administration began the process of issuing waivers to states for NCLB, conditioning access to the waivers on whether a state was willing to adopt the Administration’s preferred education policies. The waivers are another executive overreach from the Obama Administration, and state leaders should reject them in 2012 and demand genuine relief from NCLB.
5. Administration continues national standards push
One of the more concerning education developments in 2011 was the Obama Administration’s continued push for states to adopt national standards and tests. National standards are a significant Washington overreach into what is taught in local schools, and would further remove parents for the educational decision-making process.
6. Online learning growth accelerates
In 2011, a growing number of families decided to take advantage of the online learning options now available for K-12 students across the country. According to Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning, there are now 30 states with full-time online learning schools, open to students from districts across the state. Across the country, students are taking millions of courses online, customizing their educational experiences.
7. House Education and the Workforce Committee moves to reduce federal role in education
In 201 the House Education and the Workforce Committee put forward some major proposals to begin the important work of reducing the federal role in education. Two important proposals were introduced: one, by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), would trim the number of programs under NCLB from around 80 down to 43. Another by Chairman John Kline (R-MN), would allow states more flexibility to spend federal education dollars in a way that best meets the needs of local students. Both are good first steps to returning more power to state and local leaders, and reducing Washington’s bloated role in education.
8. Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) sees action
Federal education policy watchers were surprised to see the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee pass a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), today known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Hopefully the Senate committee’s solo action will remain a 2011 relic, and approaches to allow states to opt-out completely will be considered in 2012.
9. Obama forgives student loans
In November 2011, President Obama traveled to the University of Colorado-Boulder to announce his plan to forgive federal student loans, a demand made, notably, by the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Students cannot be required to pay more than 10 percent of their discretionary income on loan payments, all of which will be forgiven after 20 years. Sadly, this executive overreach shifts the burden of paying for college from the students who are directly benefiting from having attended college, to the nearly three-quarters of Americans who did not graduate from college.
10. Obama Administration orchestrates for-profit university witch hunt
On June 2 2011, the Department of Education issued restrictive new regulations targeting “for-profit” higher education institutions. The new “gainful employment” regulation restricts access to student loans for students attending for-profit institutions (like Capella University or the University of Phoenix, for instance) if the school’s average debt-to- earnings ratio exceeds 12 percent of a graduate’s income. The net result? De-facto government price controls on a sector meeting the needs of students historically underserved by traditional universities.