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Beating the Bureaucrats in Education

by Christopher Chantrill
November 14, 2005 at 3:36 am


GOVERNOR Schwarzenegger learned an important lesson last week when his four voter initiatives to reform California state government went down to defeat. If you try to take out the government employees in a massive World War I style offensive you won’t succeed. Instead of a decisive breakthrough you will suffer a decisive defeat. But we knew that, didn’t we? No general would accept battle on equal terms against an entrenched enemy unless he had tactical surprise or an advantage in position.

The modern strategy to use against an entrenched enemy was first developed in 1915 in the Argonne by the German General von Mudra. It was a strategy of slicing off small sectors of the front using tactical surprise and local artillery superiority. The attacks were small enough to be individually “harmless” but cumulatively, they ended up advancing the front and chewing up the enemy. That must be our strategy in rolling back the tax-eating welfare state.

But how do you implement such a strategy, for instance, against the one-size-fits-all education system? Surely the system will fight any attempt to introduce flexibility and choice into its centralized government monopoly?

In fact the system does respond to small-scale efforts for change, partly because liberals want special programs for their children even as they insist on one-size-fits-all for everyone else. In the US every city worth its salt now has a High School of the Arts where kids must compete to get in. In West Palm Beach, for instance, the excellent Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. School for the Arts is right next to the downtown CityPlace shopping district, its trendy boutiques, and attractive city square. You can see the merit of the Art School concept. In a world that hates streaming by ability, the Arts School conveniently streams the children of liberal parents into special liberal-friendly schools. Liberals get their kids into special, segregated public high schools while still being able to boast that they send their kids to public school.

In Washington State homeschooling parents worried about sending their kids to high school can skip it altogether by enrolling their kids in the Running Start program at community college. It’s a two year program that you can enter at 11th grade and end up with a community college associate degree. When rumor has it that 25 percent of the kids at a local high school have STDs, what’s not to like?

Although the government schools want to be centralized one-size-fits-all, they do provide some choice. Alert parents can obtain a limited cafeteria service from the central school kitchens.

But why not expand the limited cafeteria service into a food court? Why not turn our factory schools into education malls? We could have each mall with its big anchor tenants, the equivalent of our unionized, everything-under-one-roof schools as recommended by James B. Conant a generation ago in The American High School Today. But the government anchor tenants could be surrounded by specialized boutiques like the Kumon Math and Reading Centers and Sylvan Learning Centers. Maybe what America needs is not retail-office centers but retail-office-education centers. Then kids could go straight from school to their part-time jobs at the mall.

But there is another reason why the education mall could be the vehicle for real reform in education, turning it from an expert monopoly into a customer-oriented service industry. It would transform education into a woman-friendly shopping experience. Anyone who has listened to mothers chatting about their children’s education understands that the conversation often turns upon the discussion of hard-to-find education specials: how one mother managed to enroll her child in a special science program at Martin Luther King Middle School, or how another mother managed to get her child into a special language arts program at the Nathan Hale Language School. This is education as shopping. It is what women want.

It is what women used to have. Back in the nineteenth century before schools were municipalized and before parents were forced to send their children to the government school mandated for their catchment area, parents sent their children to the school of their choice. Mothers learned about the best schools from their network of friends.

But all this talk of education malls is jumping the gun. What conservatives need to do is learn from General von Mudra. School choice doesn’t just mean fighting a punishing offensive for charter schools and school vouchers. It means winkling new programs and options out of the current monolithic system, chiseling decoration into faceless walls and growing grass in the cracks. Slowly but surely we can transform the system.

And if we turn education into a shopping experience, the women of the world will never let the education blob take it away.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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