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Public Education: A State of Emergency

It was not that long ago when the profession of teaching was considered an honorable pursuit, worthy of respect. This was certainly the case during my wife Barbara’s career as a school teacher. Now, the profession is at best taken for granted and at worst, the option of last resort for average professionals. Teachers’ unions need to stop defending the idea that teacher jobs and promotions should be protected regardless of performance. When seniority and tenure trumps merit, it’s a recipe for mediocrity. And if we want the best and brightest to choose teaching over other professions, we need to pay them accordingly.
We also need to change the way public schools are funded. As long as schools are funded unevenly, we will continue to have the separate and unequal schools that we thought we outlawed with the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling nearly 60 years ago.

And while charter schools may provide clues to how best to reform public schools, they are not solutions in and of themselves. Charter schools are the life rafts of the rapidly sinking Titanic that is public education in poor, predominantly black and Latino urban communities, forcing far too many families to scramble for far too few spots. For example, New York City charter schools educate just 4% of public school students. What about the other 96%? We can’t create enough charter schools fast enough to rescue them. And even if we could, at least one study shows that only 17% of charter schools provide education superior to their local public school peers; 37% deliver significantly worse results. The truth is that the attributes of the best charter schools are the same as the best public schools.

The bottom line is that we must fix our entire public education system, not just bits and pieces of it. It’s long past time for our individual and national priorities—and spending—to truly match our rhetoric regarding the importance of American public education. It will take everyone, including government at every level, leaders regardless of political party, teachers, parents, students, and every member of every community to keep the crisis of public education from becoming a full-fledged national disaster.

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