The future of public education

Monday, November 22, 2004

Thirty-five years ago I spent three months as a student teacher at a middle school in New Haven, Conn. I learned many valuable lessons, including that teaching is very rewarding and much more challenging than most people think. I believe with adequate community support that public education is still the best way to a better future.

Unfortunately, President Bush's No Child Left Behind approach is not leading us to that better future. This program has generally failed since it is essentially an unfunded mandate that has raised property taxes and made it more difficult for really good teachers to teach. And, the charter school movement suffered a blow when the U.S. Department of Education's own statistics showed that children in charter schools generally lagged behind their public school peers by six months.

Based on nearly 12 years as governor and 14 years as a parent of two public school students, let me recommend the following:

Equalize education funding so that every child has the same amount of funding no matter if they are in an inner city, suburban or a rural school. Many courts throughout the country have already called for this, and in Vermont we did it.

Allow more parental input and responsibility. Parents should be able to choose among public schools in their area by lottery. Magnet schools and public charter schools should be encouraged only with real supervision. Home-schooled children should be welcomed into public schools for activities unavailable to them at home - after all, their parents pay taxes to support public education. And, parents ought to be allowed to request teachers.

Teachers ought to be paid a lot more and they ought to be rewarded for acquiring additional expertise. This is already happening in some states; let's make it happen in every state.

Good school climate is everything, which means leadership matters. The burnout rate for principals is enormous. They are expected to be at meetings five nights a week, leaving no time for their own families. Many are promoted from within the ranks of the best teachers, and discover they miss student interaction in the classroom. There should be limits on extracurricular hours, and where it's necessary, principals need an administrator to deal with paperwork, so the principal can deal with kids and parents.

Additional education opportunities should be available. Vocational education should include adults who are retraining. Community college courses ought to be available in high schools for students who want an academic and financial leg up.

We ought to recognize that many of the problems in public education have little to do with what goes on in schools. If you want to help fix public education, invest in children and their families at a young age. We need to invest in children from birth to three years old. Preschools should be available to every child. We did it in Vermont, and our child abuse rate dropped by 43 percent for kids under six.

If you think all these recommendations are expensive, think about what you are paying for the war in Iraq. Think about the bill for prisons. Think about your property taxes that have increased because you are paying for services that are federal unfunded mandates.

Many of these recommendations have been put in place in some states. Real education reform means funding them, not empty slogans like No Child Left Behind.

Howard Dean is a syndicated columnist.

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