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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Harsh Truth About Public Schools

Is Our School System Beyond Reform?

Prepare for a mind-altering experience as you take a scary but empowering read through Bruce Shortt’s book The Harsh Truth About Public Schools.

The reader should not be deceived by what seems an overwhelmingly sectarian starting point in this well-organized, reader-friendly book. Shortt’s style is highly effective in convincing readers that the “public school” system in the United States today is beyond reform.

From beginning to end, the writer, an attorney who homeschools his children, documents the dishonorable conduct, degenerating academic standards, and defensive bureaucracy that are jeopardizing America’s future, courtesy of teacher unions’ self-interest and increasingly derelict parents.

For the critical reader it’s easy to cop an attitude toward the book in chapter one. Many will think, “Why is the author blaming the purveyors of public education—from teachers and principals to school boards and activist courts? Why isn’t the finger-pointing toward complacent, delinquent, and irresponsible parents and taxpayers?” Gotcha! Whether this is the intended or unintended direction of Shortt’s work, he compels readers into subsequent chapters, all the way to the end, where constructive alternatives to the failing public-school system are enumerated and discussed.

Shortt’s early chapters are designed to shock, as the author hops from one school district to another, covering every state, to document instances of classroom lies and perversion that not only go unpunished, but are also the subject of attempted cover-ups by public school officials. He cites a case where parents were not notified when a transsexual was brought into a first-grade class to describe how sex changes are performed! And under the heading “Whose Children Are They?” the author tells of a parent who went to the trouble of reviewing classroom material and learning later that the teacher told the child, “Your parents don’t have to know.”

By the end of the third chapter, the reader is thoroughly aware of the pervasiveness of corruption, mediocrity, and deception in public education today.

Shortt also presents an eye-opening history of the evolution of American public education, along with the motivations (some idealistic and well-intentioned, and some quite nefarious) that moved this country away from nearly 100 percent private education to our current, 89 percent government schooling. This fascinating, 200-year excursion elaborates the multitude of reforms that parents and educational experts have proposed, and hits hard on the obstacles to reform that have been erected by teacher unions and lobbyists for the status quo.

The book later explores success and failure patterns in charter schools, private and parochial organizations, and homeschools. Shortt also compares the school bureaucracy’s nauseating, defensive braggadocio with the disappointing reality of academic performance. The author also debunks the establishment myths about this being our “best-educated generation.” He counters this with the discouraging ACT and SAT scores of our top public high-schoolers, despite fabulous growth in taxpayer spending per pupil, which has far outpaced price inflation. Shortt also exposes the dirty little data secrets attendant to falling levels of expectation and performance in the public-school arena: drop-out rates, the cost and growth of remedial education, cheating by teachers and administrators to raise test scores, and so on.

To achieve durable, long-term gains in student achievement with far fewer dollars per pupil, Shortt recommends homeschooling and parochial education. Not that the author omits discussion of reform from within the public-school system: vouchers, charter schools, and meetings with teachers, principals, and school boards just for starters. He evaluates them and concludes that these efforts at reform are a snare and delusion. He advocates that every church support and educate parents about homeschooling and collaborate with other churches to find ways to bring every Christian child out from government-school bondage.

Given Shortt’s central concern with rescuing Christian children from increasingly immoral, dangerous, and dumbed-down learning environments, he might be accused of writing a book that would appeal only to Christian conservatives. Not true. Within his fine book Shortt includes quotations from rabbis and the Hebrew prophets that support his case that government schooling is an enormous impediment to quality education and the longevity of an ethical, progressive society.

  • David L. Littmann is senior economist with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich., and the largest state-based free-market think tank in the country.