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Sen Mike Lee: Community can play a bigger role in public education

SHARE Sen Mike Lee: Community can play a bigger role in public education
Students move between classes at Beaver School District’s Belknap Elementary School.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For three decades, education reformers have tried to improve our nation’s schools by injecting “choice” into the public square. These debates often turn contentious, pitting advocates on one side of “school choice” against the other. It’s time for a new chapter in how we think about education. 

As laid out in a new report from the Joint Economic Committee, which I chair, the American school system would benefit from a greater degree of pluralism — switching from a default of government-provided education to one in which government dollars fund a wide diversity of educational approaches and philosophies. 

“Educational pluralism” is a fancy phrase for a simple concept — that we need to give parents more choices in tailoring their child’s education to their family’s needs. 

“Educational pluralism” is a fancy phrase for a simple concept — that we need to give parents more choices in tailoring their child’s education to their family’s needs. 

Pluralism is not, however, simply a fancy way of saying “school choice.” It recognizes the vital roles that communities play in forming children in a way that framing education as a strictly individual choice does not. It points out the hollow myth of “neutrality” that the district school system promises, but can never deliver. And it recognizes the importance of maintaining high standards, ensuring that every child has the chance at a quality education. 

A pluralistic system of education changes the default — instead of presuming the traditional district model is right for every family, government would see its role as guaranteeing and funding, not necessarily providing, education. A pluralist system offers a wide degree of diversity in educational approaches and philosophies, empowering civil society groups to build strong, supportive communities around every child. It is accompanied by a framework of evaluation that ensures that every school, regardless of which sector of society is operating it, is successfully transmitting knowledge to the students who attend it. 

Americans may be unfamiliar with our country’s tradition of pluralist education, and may be unaware that the U.S. is in an outlier in our reliance on government provision of education compared with many other industrialized nations. Even in the days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, cities of 50 families or more were required to hire schoolteachers so young colonists were not only literate but also familiar with scripture. Today in Sweden, each child’s per-capita share of funding can be used at a public or private school, and many other countries offer public funds to a wide array of school types.

The U.S. reliance on near-monopolistic state provision of education, however, has not led to narrow achievement gaps between the rich and poor, nor has it elevated debates over curriculum and content above deep-seated divisions. A system developed in the age of the assembly line is ill-suited for an age of innovation. 

Shifting our thinking from education as a state-delivered good to one that is state-guaranteed gives us the opportunity to engage religious and community groups in a more meaningful way. Decades of social science research have stressed the importance of functional, intergenerational communities that form a web of supportive relationships around every child. 

In many communities, public schools are a great treasure and an invaluable source of social capital. Pluralism does not minimize the value of a great public school, but encourages us to think harder about devolving authority down to the lowest appropriate level, allowing more parents to feel like they have an ownership stake in the direction of the school. A truly pluralist system also implies a level of assessment and accountability that ensures more sectors of society can be engaged in the great work of forming the next generation of citizens. 

This approach requires a shift in thinking, but new approaches are sorely needed. It would require policy reforms primarily at the state and local levels. Federal policy can promote it only at the margins, primarily by giving states more flexibility in how the spend federal education dollars.

But we should learn from other countries — and our past — in imagining a better way to engage communities and parents in building an education system in which every child has the chance to thrive. 

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee is Utah’s senior senator.