November 21, 2006

Don't play on the fringes

The Royal Gazette
Opinion (22 Nov. 2006)

‘When they want change the preacher says “shout it”.
Does shout bring about change? I doubt it.
All shout does is make you lose your voice.’

“Fishin’ 4 Religion” by Arrested Development

If raising the standard of Bermuda’s public education system were as simple as raising your voice, then Randy Horton, the latest Minister of Education, is the man for the job.

If there’s more to it than Mr. Boombastic waxing lyrical on the Parliamentary mic about taking the education system “by the scruff of the neck”, believing “that our young people can succeed” and having “passion” for education we’re out of luck.

Ring the bell, not just my ears Minister Horton. School’s out. Our public education system is broken. All the passion and belief in the world aren’t going to change that fact.

Now I know that I can’t make that statement without being accused of undermining our public school students, but it’s true. I believe in our children. I just don’t believe in the system. How can I?

All the belief in the world, all the shouting, won’t change the fact that we’re not equipping our public students with the skills they need to fully participate in our economy; a fifty-three percent graduation rate – of an inferior diploma – is a testament to that.

Sadly, Minister Horton’s speech reeked of the all too prevalent idea that we can fix education by building self-esteem and having faith. First the PLP brought us faith based tourism; now we have faith based education. Lord help us.

If there’s one thing our kids don’t suffer from it’s a lack of self-esteem. Too many of them have too much of it in fact; too much self-esteem and too little education.

The public education system has been overwhelmingly successful at instilling in our under-equipped students the belief that they possess the skills and tools to succeed in our economy – and the world. They don’t. And they never will if we refuse to face reality…and fast.

This mismatch between expectations and reality has been created and perpetuated by the Ministry of Education and some politicians to the point that it’s almost criminal.

For years we’ve been preaching the gospel of entitlement to our public school kids: the sky’s the limit; the best, highest paying jobs in our prosperous community are yours for the taking; racism and foreign workers are holding you back, not a lack of education.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that too many of our young people, through no fault of their own, enter the workforce without the skills to cope, let alone advance. Frustration sets in as they see others moving past them into positions they’ve been told they are entitled to as Bermudians.

Not surprisingly the result of this is resentment and the outright revolt that we’re witnessing in some segments of society today. This isn’t a disaster waiting to happen, but one happening before our eyes on a daily basis; so much so that many of us don’t seem to notice anymore.

But there’s hope. Ironically, buried in the Throne Speech and Minister Horton’s passion was a solution; albeit not under the Education heading.

The closing of the Indigent Care clinic at the hospital, a move designed to allow those who can’t afford it to see the doctor of their choice at taxpayer expense, is one of the major ideas of the Throne Speech.

What does this have to do with education?

Simple: equal access to equal healthcare despite your economic means.

Surely, if the Government believes that everyone, despite their means, is entitled to private healthcare, they should also believe that everyone, despite their means, is entitled to private top-notch education.

Same concept. Different Ministry.

If, as Minister Horton declared on Friday, we should run the education system as a business, why not do just that? Why shouldn’t every student in Bermuda have equal access to any school of their choice?

The simple fact of the matter is that we have two education systems, one for those who can afford (barely in many cases) $14,000 a year in private school tuition (plus the taxes they pay to fund the public system) and those who can’t.

This has resulted in de facto segregation which is perpetuating a divide that is primarily economic, but often viewed as racial in nature. We can end this by giving every parent in Bermuda a school voucher redeemable at the institution of their choice, whether public or private.

Or take it a step further. If the private schools do education better and cheaper – as they do – why not get the Government out of the education ‘business’ all together?

While there’s hope, I’m not optimistic. For years we’ve had Education Ministers content to tinker with the system, looking only five years ahead to the next election – or a few months as is the case today, with Dr. Brown preparing for a spring 2007 election.

When our interests and those of our policy makers aren’t aligned you get platitudes and passion, not the massive structural change – or complete privatization – of public education that is long overdue.

Even under the best case scenarios, turning around public education will take at least a generation to bear fruit. It can’t be managed in a political timeframe.

The PLP Government, or any Government, must stop pretending that public education can be rescued by playing on the fringes. It can’t.

Our educators and politicians must stop telling our children that they can be whatever they want to be, that we believe in them, that we have a passion for them, while churning them through a broken system.

Only when we truly commit to equal educational opportunities for all of our children, will we begin to address the manifestations of a failing public education system: a widening economic gap, increasing crime or an increasingly alienated youth for example.

Without education there can be no empowerment, merely empowerment zones.

Posted by Christian S. Dunleavy