Too Late to Save Public Education

by John L. Perry

May 15, 2000

America's government-botched kindergarten through college is in its death throes, even as the well- and not-so-well-intended flounder to prolong the agony.

For one who has devoted much of a lifetime fighting to protect public education at all levels, from its enemies and itself, no satisfaction is derived in reaching that conclusion.

But now, in the year 2000, there's no point indulging further denial. The time has finally come to acknowledge there's no salvaging the monumental cock-up the educationists have made of what was once the shining hope of Western civilization – the American public-education system.

There remains but one solution: Scrap the whole outrageous mess and start all over again, this time forewarned and far-less starry-eyed.

The only credible question left is how.

Not only is no sure cure in sight, precious time is running out.

The Japanese, the Germans, the Israelis, the British, most of the industrialized world are beating the living daylights out of the United States when it comes to educating the next generation. Soon the Chinese will be nipping at American heels, like the bloodhounds after Eliza trying to cross the ice floes into free territory.

And private institutions of learning in the United States, while light years ahead of public schools and colleges, needn't be smug. The same bell is tolling for them if they, too, don't get cracking.

Those who resent such defamation ought to borrow a dictionary: Truth as well as falsehood may defame.

Those insisting upon proof need only converse seriously with:

Employers in the private sector

Don't waste breath asking those in the public sector; they're a big part of the problem and no part of the solution.

Business after business across this land is having to re-school graduates of public education lest the competition put them out of business.

Products of public education cannot, with satisfactory competence, read or write, spell or pronounce, cipher or cut a square corner in their thinking. They hold a pencil as if they were about to drive a tent peg, and the "script" they produce is neither print nor cursive nor anything recognizable in between.

They know not how to locate Des Moines on a map. Their acquaintance with literature goes little beyond the mind-numbing confines of People magazine. They could not hold their own in an actual debate if their lives depended upon it. History for them began as they encountered puberty.

If the National Association of Manufacturers is looking for something worthwhile to do it might well tote up how many billions a year tax-paying United States employers are having to invest out of their coffers in doing what all taxpayers have wasted billions failing to do.

There is now already a virtual, unrecognized, underground private education system costing employers – and thus their customers – untold sums. Without it, the U.S. economy would go bust and goods and services from foreign countries that know how to educate their young would engulf this nation even more.

Just talk with those American private employers about American public education. Be prepared to hear strong language.

Private and public customers

American adults who patronize privately operated enterprises and must put up with public agencies, including schools, have horror story after hilarious anecdote to recount.

From restaurant "servers" to airline "attendants" to high-school "teachers" to high-tech "specialists" to assorted government "servants" to you-name-it, across the economy the end products of American public education are increasingly incapable of cutting the mustard.

They can’t make change without a machine telling them how much, they abuse grammar that would make Ned in the First Reader gag, they cannot add, multiply, subtract and divide – not even on their fingers – without using an imported, hand-held calculator.

Public-school graduates themselves

This is the most depressing exercise of all.

Try asking them what 12 times eight is, who invented pasteurization, what pasteurization is, where to look up the atomic periodic table, what the periodic table is, what the Federalist papers are, what John Locke had to say, who John Locke was, how a grand jury works, what the meaning of the labor theory of value is, why leaves follow a light source and just for fun what the capital of Omaha is.

For a real shock, try visiting a public school and see all the things except education that are being taught there.

Does that mean all public schools, all public-education teachers are failures?

Of course not. Some are truly magnificent – and prove it is possible to do the job right.

But the miserable failures and get-by mediocrities far outnumber the stars – to the extent that they have putrefied the public-education system beyond repair. The relatively few teachers and schools and colleges of excellence can no longer carry the failures on their backs. The gangrene has spread too far.

Early grades blame parents, high schools blame elementary schools, colleges and universities blame them all, and they all are right of course.

It is a self-perpetuating circle: Teacher colleges turn out teachers who have been taught methodology but not knowledge of subjects they brazenly posture to teach. Unqualified teachers turn out unqualified graduates, the least-qualified of whom are attracted into lifetime careers in education.

And the retrograde labor union known as the National Education Association – which a truly great educator, the late John E. Ivey Jr., once described as "the biggest organized cultural lag in America" – runs the whole incestuous show in cahoots with tenure-transfixed college professors who yearn to do anything but teach.

Now the heat is on. Increasingly, parents, employers, even students themselves are getting fed up. The public-education establishment is feeling the pressure to "do something" – not to improve education but to save its own bacon.

Here are just a couple of recent strategies proposed by the do-anything, just do-something advocates:

Income-tax forgiveness

In California, where a disproportionate number of nutty ideas hatch, the Democratic governor wants the general assembly to excuse all public-school teachers from having to pay state income tax.

Not just the excellent teachers – all of them alike, goats included.

The bright idea is to attract and hold the best. Horse biscuits!

The best are already competing to go into private schools, regardless of compensation. The worst you couldn't blast out of there with dynamite.

This suggestion is typical of others that assume money will solve the education problem if only enough is poured into it.

The problem with that giddy approach is that all it produces is more of the same, not more of the best and less of the worst. It's like spraying gasoline on a bonfire to put it out.

Advisory councils

The Georgia Legislature has enacted a requirement that every public school in the state must create an advisory panel of two parents, two teachers and two business people, with the principal as chair.

It has no power other than to make recommendations to the local elected school board.

The same new law requires each recommendation be considered and acted upon by the school board.

Critics are saying it will be an ungodly mess, with 11,000 volunteer advisory-board members putting in their two-cents-worth and some school districts containing as many as 150 schools, each with an advisory panel.

Gross as that is, it misses the larger point. The idea of advisory councils, as one Georgia educator warbled, is that "it takes a whole village to educate a child."

Yeah, right, and just look at the village. Every "village" in America is now into its second, maybe even third, generation of parent-age adults who are products of a failed public-education system.

How are they, of all people, supposed to know what it takes to educate – really educate – a youngster? Their illusion of education is the public non-education system.

Does this mean all parents are unqualified to judge education? Of course not.

But drowning out their informed voices in a babble of incoherency emanating from functionally uneducated parents is scarcely a scheme calculated to raise the educational level.

It's the same story in public colleges. The educationists have managed to set up "privacy" walls that prohibit parents from finding out how their college-enrolled youngsters are doing academically or even whether they are in trouble with the law for taking illegal drugs.

Small wonder that poor old mom and dad, after coughing up tens of thousands of dollars to get junior through four years of higher public education, are flabbergasted when the kid doesn't get a degree or, even if he does, can't qualify for a decent job because he doesn't know jack about anything that really matters.

So wretchedly has the educational establishment in this country managed the public schools and colleges that the walls are beginning to buckle.

It hurts, really deeply, to have to write this, but truth is truth: Private enterprise is going to have to take over the job of educating America's youth.

The village idiots who have been running the village for their own aggrandizement have left no alternative.

Transition from public to private will be both painful and costly.

Maybe that's a good thing.

It's time again in this country for education to be a hard-earned mark of respect.

John L. Perry, a prize-winning newspaper editor and writer who served on White House staffs of two presidents, is senior editor and a regular columnist for

Reproduced with the permission of All rights reserved.


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17 may 2000