Mitch Daniels’ Surprising Defense of the Public School System

Now that I've criticized major elements of Mitch Daniels' education agenda, I thought I'd highlight by far the most interesting statement he made at AEI today, because it breaks in a significant way with typical conservative, free-market school reform rhetoric:

"You cannot often enough affirm your commitment to the public schools. As I said, 90 percent of Indiana kids are in public schools today. I think even with the new option that's in place [private school vouchers], it'll always be close to that. I really believe that; I would be surprised if it's not. Therefore, there's a huge responsibility, and we should all share a commitment, to make the public schools better all the time. Semantically, it's probably important to talk about school improvement. Reform means different things to different people."

There's a humility here that is typically lacking among proponents of private school vouchers and other free-market education policies. The Republican budget proposal hung much of its education agenda, absurdly, on reinstating the tiny Washington, D.C. voucher program, which serves just 8,000 students. 

Our universal public school system, on the other hand, is massive; it educates all but about 10.4 percent of American children, and employs some 4 million teachers. Just about 8 percent of its funding comes from the federal government, which means schools are largely locally-controlled, and somewhat immune from the whims of presidential politics.  

Incentive programs like Race to the Top and accountability policies like No Child Left Behind can still have a big impact on schools, because American quality education is already so unequally distributed and underfunded that most local politicians hesitate to forgo even the small amount of education aid on offer from Washington. But it's always a good idea to remember that, for both good and ill, the organization and governance of American schools have changed very little since the early 20th century, in part because the system, as it is currently construed, is deeply-entrenched into every aspect of our society. 

The small-scale voucher proposals on offer from GOP governors do nothing to change that.

One thought on “Mitch Daniels’ Surprising Defense of the Public School System

  1. Aaron from teaneck NJ


    Great articles on education, I don’t always agree but you add a lot of depth to the debate in education.

    You should be the new advocate for broad cold war like consensus process.

    we really don’t have any consensus on structurally rearchitecting the system. We just swing from funding fights to testing/metrics/performance battles.

    The federal department of education lacks authority & national standards labs /r & d like NIH. There should be a National Institute of Learning (not education as we need to life long learning & skill attainment).

    the system is broken to its core.

    We are stuck with a 100 year old model with classic agency dilemma.

    How we fund (real estate valuation & state transfers)not on a per student basis with a regional index for cost.

    why we move (district quality)& location to

    why & how schools are built

    what the mission of the school is (k-12 only learning) no after care/young adult learning/ life long learning etc.. we only use school physical plant 8 hrs a day for 185 days a year.. grossly underutilized capacity.

    who instructs (teachers only)not professionals/technical experts – votech-certifications/licenses etc.. i.e. german the dual system of education.

    how they learn & what they learn. 100′s of learning models with poor testing validation

    what they teach & how they teach it (lack of curriculum coherence & no standards for core curriculum in the US)

    How we grade/promote/

    duration of school day/week/year total volume of teaching /learning vs. time in school

    student/parent engagement with the model itself thru teachers

    student outcomes for college & perverse financial incentives for colleges to pick students.

    limited or no industry engagement around core skills required for workplace & life skills.

    No Lifeskills as a core requirement (financial/health/social/civic/legal/etc..)

    I wish we had real conversations about learning not just education & existing model of education.

    Aaron from Teaneck NJ


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