School reform: It's not about left or right

American and British public schools feel pushed towards more choice, charters, vouchers, standards, incentive pay, and other reforms. Teacher unions push back. What happens to the kids?

Lefteris Pitarakis / AP / File
A member of Britain's National Union of Teachers (NUT) chants slogans during a rally to protest the British government's proposed cuts, in central London, Oct. 19.

US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, met Michael Gove yesterday. His arrival in the UK should be a reminder to us all that if we care about what’s best for our education system, we can put aside the traditional divide between the political left and right.

Duncan is a devoted Democrat who grew up tutoring children at his mother’s after-school programme on the South Side of Chicago, an area not known for being populated by latte-swilling middle class parents. He wrote his undergraduate dissertation on the plight of the urban underclass and has called schooling “the civil rights issue of our generation”. In addition to this – shock horror – he supports policies to lessen state involvement in education.

Obama’s administration has overseen an investment of more than $4 billion in the ‘Race to the Top’ competition, designed to spur reforms in state and local district education. States must vie for federal money by submitting proposals that include reforms to expand charter schools, and the evaluation of teachers is based on their students’ exam performance. Duncan supports the coalition government’s proposals for free schools, which model themselves on the charter schools that he has given room to.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, school reform is facing considerable opposition from the left wing. Labourites continue to insist that ploughing yet more taxpayers’ money into comprehensive schools is what’s needed to raise standards, despite the fact that such tactics have been shown to be a comprehensive failure. The experiment into tight government control of education has lasted over four decades, and over 90% of those going through the school system have been subjected to it. And the result? Standards are woeful, teachers are demoralised, and parents who can’t afford private school fees or expensive houses find their options for educating their children severely limited.

The NUT is sending threatening letters to state heads asking them of their intentions with regard to free school status, and plans to create a list of individuals who support the free school scheme in a tactic more reminiscent of the Salem witch trials than a simple bid for freedom of information. Meanwhile the Anti Academies Alliance describes the Academies Bill as a ‘savage attack on the education system in this country’; ‘an attempt to destroy a democratic, planned, state education system and replace it with a two tier, market driven collection of independent schools at the mercy of education companies driven by profit’. It’s a shame that left-wingers in the UK seem to understand so little about free market economics. If they’d read Smith or Hayek they’d understand that an atmosphere of competition fosters high standards, and that planned societies are possible only in conjunction with totalitarian governments.

It is an obscenity to suggest that those backing the liberalisation of schooling don’t care about those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, the coalition’s plans for free schools promise to be of most benefit to the disadvantaged, since the wealthy will always have the option of shopping around. For the sake of our education system, let’s hope that we can put political bias aside and learn something from Duncan’s visit.

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