Why Conservatives Must Lead on Education Reform

My guest today is Rob Nelson, a political activist who works on behalf of Right To Succeed, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that launched the "Drop 50" campaign, to cut school dropout rates across America by 50% over five years.

Glazov: Rob Nelson, thanks for joining me.

I want to talk to you about why conservatives must lead on education reform in this country, but first talk to me about the problem in American schools and about one of the most telling manifestations of this problem: the dropout rate.

Nelson: Thanks, Jamie. I think by now most people know we have a major crisis in American education. Across the country public schools are failing and failing big. They’re often poorly run, bureaucracy heavy, and failing to bring kids over the bar. But here’s something you may not know. On average, almost 40% of American kids are dropping out before they finish high school. In Chicago, it’s around 50%. In L.A., it’s almost 60%.  In a few big cities, it’s nearly 70%.

Why dropout rates as a measurement of success or failure as compared to test scores? It’s a bottom line measurement and you can’t argue with it. When nearly half to 2/3 of kids aren’t graduating -- it’s total system-wide failure. If a school is getting 100% on their exit exams, but half the kids aren’t taking the test, is that success? What if Fed Ex delivered 50% of its packages on time and to the right place, but the other half never arrived? The CEO and top management would be fired. When it comes to schools we need to start holding the top management of our cities and our schools accountable in the same way. The system wide level of failure is unacceptable and absolutely inexcusable, and a looming travesty of astronomical proportions.

Glazov: But wait a minute, isn’t it the responsibility of the kids who drop out?

Nelson: Well, Jamie, a lot of people might want to blame the kids. Yes, they’re the ones choosing to drop out and we are each accountable for our own actions. But so many of our public schools are doing such a terrible job of making school relevant to kids, creating an engaging learning environment, and then investing kids in the process of their own education so that they want to stay in school. Did you know a major reason for many dropouts is boredom?

Keep this in mind. Blame the kids. Blame parents, unions, bureaucrats….blame whomever you want -- there’s plenty of blame to go around. At the end of the day if we’re losing half our kids to a future where they are without the knowledge, skills, and education to participate in a productive way in our society the rest of us are going to pay the price -- literally! Prison costs, welfare, homelessness, crime, medical bills. You don’t like handouts? Well, if we don’t fix this, get ready for some major ones. It’s simple math. If drop out rates continue at their current rates, in 15 years, 25% of Americans will be supporting the other 75%. Is that a future you’re comfortable with? Is that a price tag you want to give your kids?

Glazov: So why should conservatives lead on doing something about this national crisis?

Nelson: Education has always been considered a liberal issue. But actually, reforming public education in America is a perfect opportunity for conservatives. The traditional issue has always been about money. Liberals think we’re not spending enough, conservatives think money isn’t the answer. Money is a factor. Often there aren’t enough resources, and just as often it’s not being well spent, and the wrong people are making the spending decisions. But money is secondary to the real issues that must drive education reform in America. So right there you have one thing most conservatives like to hear -- it’s not primarily about how much we spend.

Here’s the deal. The way to reform public schools matches with a lot of conservative values. If conservatives got out in front on this issue, took the lead, and made this issue one of their top priorities, they could not only help force systemic change that is in line with their core principles, but they could be seen as champions of the most important social issue facing America today -- and counter the perception that they’re only for the rich and want to keep the poor and minorities down.

What’s more, conservatives might be the only ones able to muscle through the changes that will reshape our public education landscape, driving a much needed wedge into the bureaucracy laden process so that our public school systems start to work, not just for those in affluent communities, but for all Americans -- especially the poor and minorities who make up the vast majority of failing American public schools. And wouldn’t that be a nice victory for conservatives to claim leadership on?