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?

Glazov: Give us some for specific and concrete reasons why conservatives must take the lead.

Nelson: Let me give you three right off the bat:

First: School choice. One of the keys to fixing public schools is that we need to take control away from top heavy bureaucracies and give it back to individuals, families, and communities. Smaller schools, clustered together, giving parents and students choice is the way to go. The Belmont Zone of Choice in L.A. is a great example. Instead of just sweeping 6.000 middle school kids into one or two big high schools, an innovative district superintendent created a number of smaller schools and gave families the ability to choose where they wanted to send their kids. And it’s working. I’m on the advisory board for one of those schools, the Los Angeles School of Global Studies. It’s a great example. Ninety percent Latino, 100% from low income families, coming out of the inner city and facing all the challenges that encompasses, and they have a 90% graduation rate.

Second: We need to drive change through a values-based approach that sets high standards and expects results, and then create a system of accountability to get those results. Good private schools have this already. It’s about setting high expectations for kids, letting them know they can succeed, and then holding them accountable and creating an environment where they hold themselves and each other accountable. It’s a simple premise, but I see it all the time in schools that work. It’s the first time a lot of these kids have heard someone say, “I believe in you and what you can do and become. So I’m going to hold you to a high standard; I’m going to expect results from you and push you to achieve them, and I’m going to expect you to rise to the challenge” -- and the kids do. They push themselves and each other. It’s accountability -- the very thing conservatives often talk about in the public initiatives they think have failed, like welfare, or the Great Society. Giving people and asking nothing back versus giving people an opportunity and a framework to do something and then expecting results. It’s a structured investment of resources with an expectation of results, instead of a handout with no expectation of returns on the investment. One can argue that all kids are entitled to a good education, and I would say that’s true. But that doesn’t mean it comes at no cost or without an expectation from the students that they have to do their part to make that work.

Finally there’s the issue of unions. Many conservatives don’t like the teachers' unions. Unions aren’t going away, nor should they. They can play an important role in helping shape change. But they have to start putting the good of the whole, and the kids, ahead of what’s best just for teachers. This may be more likely to happen if the pressure is coming from someone outside their camp. Seems paradoxical but Nixon opened China, Reagan helped drive down the Wall, and FDR was able to get us into the fight against the isolationist mindset during WWII. And by the way, bloated district bureaucracies that resist change are just as much a part of the problem.

Glazov: Final words?

Nelson: Right now, conservatives have a huge opportunity to take the lead fixing America’s broken public education system. School choice; a values-based approach to change; an accountability-based approach rather than entitlement; these are all core to many conservatives’ bottom line. Conservatives should get out in front on this. It’s a huge opportunity to show that they do care about social change and that their philosophies can work in transforming traditionally liberal approaches to fixing a broken public sector area like education. Last thing. Go to www.drop50pledge.org and sign the petition in favor of cutting America’s dropout rates 50%. We need massive pubic pressure on those in charge to get this done.