Columnists > From the Publisher

Making bureaucracy irrelevant

Why debate federal testing? Just ignore the testers

Issue: "Urban mission fundraising," Sept. 27, 1997

People who oppose the federal government's increased involvement in testing the educational achievements of our children have tended to listen attentively to the rule that educational control should reside just as close as possible to the parent of the children involved.

So if you live in Paxton, Ill., for example, you'd prefer that key decisions about your children's schooling should be made right there in Paxton (population 4,289 and the seat of Ford County) and not by the bigger bureaucrats way off in the state capital in Springfield. But if the Springfield educrats are already in control, better that than letting the feds in Washington get their hands on your kids. And if bad has already come to worse, and the feds have got their nose under the edge of the school's tent, then for sure you should dig in your heels to make sure the United Nations never gets involved.

I began learning these rules nearly 50 years ago as a third-grader at the Walker Consolidated School in eastern Iowa. The town of Walker was actually two miles from our home, but its population was a whopping 600 people, and I knew from my parents' concerned discussion that they were worried that educational control had gotten too far afield. That huge word consolidated had a sinister sound.

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The next year, a handful of families joined my parents in a successful effort to re-open the South Cono Township School, a traditional one-room schoolhouse just a quarter-mile down the road from our home. First-year teacher Barbara Lang took on 19 of us students, grades K-8, drilled us on our multiplication tables, taught me that the s in island is silent, and that Sacramento was California's capital even though it wasn't the biggest city in the state.

I must report that Miss Lang was not up to the task of keeping discipline during recess-or indeed through the rest of the day. Her task had been made much more difficult because half the families enrolled at South Cono Township School wanted very much to be back at Walker Consolidated School. They were happy when the big bureaucrats were making the educational decisions for their children. They were angry that my parents and their allies had succeeded in the micropolitical effort to re-open the tiny school closer to home.

The bitter neighborhood disagreement spilled over into both recess and class time. Ink got mysteriously spilled on my sister's desk, a brand-new bicycle tire got slashed, and finally-after a front-porch scuffle between a big eighth-grade boy and Miss Lang, she resigned at mid-year. For the rest of the year, the county asked a stern-looking fellow to sit in the back of the room to keep order while our substitute teacher led us through our academic work. But South Cono Township School closed for good in May.

When Cono Christian School opened its doors that fall, and my brothers, sisters, and I left the public school bureaucrats behind for good, my fifth-grade mind didn't comprehend how the parents involved were insisting that they have the right to make educational choices in the closest possible venue. For my parents, that meant very close indeed. In the year 1951, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Christian Reformed people had been regularly making the choice to get more personally involved in their children's education. But for most evangelicals, leaving the public-school monopoly was still a novel idea. And homeschooling-where parents could form their own monopoly on educational decisions-was a generation away.

But because of the growth of nonpublic schools and homeschools over the last generation, millions of parents today consider the big debate over nationalized testing a moot point. They've already made the decision not to pay any attention.

One beauty of making your educational decisions at home-whether in a homeschool, or a nonpublic school where your voice actually counts for something-is that you make irrelevant the feeble efforts of distant bureaucrats to shape the thinking and values of your children. You quit running scared of what might be happening in Springfield, Washington, or perhaps New York.

Smart parents don't need federal tests to tell them which schools work and which ones don't. Nor does our society at large need such a system-voluntary or otherwise, designed by the feds or designed by an independent board they designate. All we need is an even playing field, the freedom to choose openly among a multiplicity of schools, and the liberty to make significant educational decisions ourselves. Some of us began learning that lesson 50 years ago in rural Iowa, and in similar settings all across the country over the last generation. It's time now for the nation at large to insist on the same privileges-or, in a feisty manner, to exercise those prerogatives on our own even if the authorities don't at first say it's OK to do so.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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