Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Are these freedoms important?  Apparently not to our educational system.

“I have no clue,” said the recent college graduate who works for my doctor when I asked her earlier this week if she could name one freedom protected by the First Amendment.  I didn’t ask her what makes the country great, or what distinguishes us from other countries, or why President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” vision (used in both the speech to accept his party’s nomination for president and in his farewell speech to the nation as he departed the Oval Office) inspired so many people.  I wanted to see if she understood anything about how America actually works. I have a high school-age friend in Colombia who knows more American history than 99 percent of the kids in my neighborhood.

Getting back to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment, according to a recent survey, about 70 percent of Americans can recall freedom of speech, although fewer than 30 percent can name any others.  Only 1 percent of the respondents knew that the right to petition the government for grievances is guaranteed by the First Amendment.  We could arguably lose that one easily, since people are unmotivated to protect what they don’t know they have. All over the world, political prisoners languish for perceived insults to their rulers.  We don’t have rulers in this country; we consent to be governed by public servants. But how many kids are able to learn that in school?

I know that most schools and college campuses are overwhelmingly anti-capitalist, but I was still hoping that a poll by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum measuring knowledge about the freedoms we regularly enjoy would not reflect my neighborhood.  The poll suggested that only one American out of 1,000 can name the five basic freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment and that nearly a third of us can’t name any of them unprompted.

I used to think that it was sad that people knew more characters on the Simpsons than justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, but always assured myself that people being uninterested in government is not always an unhealthy thing. Political apathy is rare in countries with oppressive governments, so in one sense, a well-functioning society is one in which people are free to focus on their jobs, families and community activities.

But I am beginning to see how dangerous it is that not so many people understand how the country is governed by three co-equal branches of actual persons with different authorities, because they don’t understand when it stops working… like now.  They don’t understand when things that are not supposed to be political, like the IRS, become so, or how this threatens to erode away our basic freedoms.

In fact, what many of us understand is simply not true at all. Almost a quarter of the people responding to the museum poll cited above believe that the First Amendment grants them the right to own and raise pets, or to drive a car.

When we engage in public debate about military intervention in another nation, as we will next week when Congress returns (now that the president has voted “present” on Syria), on what principles do we engage?  Since most of our military forces got their public education in this country, what ideology do you suppose they think they are defending?  This is an even bigger question, as it has come to light in recent weeks that official Department of Defense “diversity” training labels the American founding fathers as “extremists.”

Nothing to me is more indicative of abject failure in public education than its graduates not knowing what our soldiers and sailors used to be willing to die to preserve for all of us. When an American president or member of Congress talks about protecting America’s interests, what do most school children and their parents think that means?

Can America’s public educational system be threatened by a voucher system that lets parents send their children to schools that have a better chance of helping them create skills for today’s complicated workplaces, or that might teach them what it means to be an American citizen?  I don’t think one can successfully argue anymore that public education can be weakened in this country by letting desperate parents grapple with alternate solutions.

Since we don’t know what America’s interests are these days, we should at least let parents protect their own interests by attending a school where politically correct themes are not the only subject matter. (See Core Curriculum) Maybe a few kids would like to learn math, economics or a language that is not taught in the nearby public school.  Maybe the parents believe only that time-on-task will deliver better educational results. It is unarguable that more parental involvement will enhance any form of educational experience.

This year, National School Choice Week hosted over 3,600 events around the country for 1 million participants – mostly parents. It is pretty easy to show that voucher systems save the taxpayers money, but the larger question lingers:  Is it feasible for a school district to reduce some of its expenditures, commensurate with student population losses, when kids bail out to alternative schools?  The studies say yes.  Research indicates that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of school expenses are variable over the course of a year. It is also true that almost half of the states (21) spend more on administrative and non-teaching personnel than they do on classroom teachers.

North Carolina did a state-wide survey last year, and a strong majority of parents, non-parents, Republicans, Democrats and independents all responded that the K-12 public educational system was “off track.” Studies in states as diverse as Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Montana and Alaska have confirmed that voucher systems do not harm public education, and in many ways, may help to improve it.

A large body of research suggests that there exists large variability in effectiveness among public school teachers. Inflexible tenure systems are being broken down in many states on behalf of the priceless teachers who deserve our praise and treasure for doing what cannot be done elsewhere. If schools experience decreases in funding for fewer students, now they can lay off the least effective teachers. Students should exhibit significant improvement in their academic achievement when taught by more effective teachers.

This April, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice published a report surveying empirical studies on the impact of school choice, authored by Greg Forster, PhD. These key findings are quoted from the Executive Summary:

In summary, there is no more public policy excuse for not accelerating school choice. We are seeing a huge spike in the last couple of years in states’ decisions to do just that – mostly for poor families and children with disabilities.

We might save these kids and our country as well.

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