Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I was in California for, among several things, the Conference for School Choice. This was a convergence of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents whose focus was entirely on how to foster better educational outcomes for our children.

If our current educational system was doing the job, there would be no need for exploring newer ideas or processes. If our current system was more flexible, less one-size-fits-all, we wouldn’t be having this conversation around the country. As it is, we are spending ever increasing dollars on an effort that produces outcomes that suggest we are falling further and further behind our competitors in the global economy. This is a situation that is absolutely ripe for innovation.

In fact, one of the presenters at the conference spoke about how the late Steve Jobs, no slouch in the innovation field, was an active proponent of school choice. I urge you to Google an interview that Jobs gave to a newly minted “Wired” magazine in February of 1996. In the interview, Jobs reveals his enthusiastic support for a “full-on voucher system” as the economic driver of educational innovation.

While harnessing market forces to allow schools to compete with one another for the best teachers and students has an appeal to many, it also assumes that all people are profoundly interested in having their children receive the best education possible. Sadly, that is not always the case. Those children living in poverty or in dysfunctional family situations are at a disadvantage regardless of how their school is organized. Ninety percent of the speakers at the conference dealt in one way or another with how to get parents involved in their children’s education. It is a fact of life in our state that sometimes parents are too preoccupied with simple economic survival to properly attend to their children’s educational potential. We cannot simply discard these folks. Thus the challenge to optimize the system by providing different avenues to success tailored to the needs of students, and to parents across the economic spectrum.

In South Carolina, there is something of a chicken and egg situation between jobs and educational success. More and better jobs equal increasingly stable and functional families, which in turn leaves time and resources to pay attention to the successful education of the children in the family. Instead of taking a holistic look at what our culture needs to function optimally, we tend to look at the economy and education separately, without seeing the necessary connections. In my view, these seemingly separate challenges should be subsumed into a focus on what makes for successful families. Basic to all this is decent, well paying work for parents. Basic for decent, well paying jobs for the next generation is quality education. End of story.

Whether we will be able to meet those challenges is the test for this generation of public officials. As long as tax dollars in one form or another are used for education, the political process is how priorities are set and processes are funded. I say we commit to finding successful models, be they vouchers, education savings accounts, charter schools, semi-private schools or whatever, give them a real-life trial run with meaningful and honest metrics, and see what’s what.
In the meantime, I’m looking for another 600 jobs to add to those just announced for Jasper County. Families with sound economic underpinnings are much more likely to be participants in their children’s educational successes. The next Steve Jobs may be walking to Red Cedar Elementary this morning.