Cover Story

Time to raise the bar: by Frank Brogan

A public educator and public officeholder outlines a vision for raising the standards, expanding choices, and prying the system from the "clutches ... of the special interest groups." This article was adapted from a recent speech ...

Issue: "Ideal schools," April 28, 2001

As we look at the issues that affect our quality of life, we see more often than not that the people at home can do better than the people in any capital in the United States can. We must go into the 21st century with that notion in mind, that indeed this is a government of, for, and by the people. Centralized, gigantic government-which takes people's money from them, runs it through the sausage grinder, and gives it back in a huge number of government give-away programs-should be a vestige of the past. It is time to give way in the 21st century to the things that matter the most. In Florida, we are working on our education system. We must. We are entering a new century that will be more competitive than any this world has ever known. Every child, not just some children, must learn to read and write and calculate mathematically. Children must learn about the new technology, because if they don't learn to master it, it will master them. Young people must be able to think for themselves and to communicate. In an incredibly competitive world, young people who have the knowledge will have the opportunity. That's why we must look at everything that we are, everything that we've been, and most importantly, everything that we want to be, when it comes to education. Some children-mostly children in the middle and upper classes-have always had access to quality education. But along came the United States of America and said that isn't good enough. All children deserve a quality educational experience, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their native tongue, no matter their socioeconomic condition. So we created what in concept-what in principle, I am still convinced-is a genius of contrivance. We called it public education. That meant it belonged to the public. It belonged to the children and parents of those children who desperately wanted it and desperately needed it whether they were rich or poor, whether they were black, white, or Hispanic, whether they were male or female, regardless of where they lived, regardless of their handicapping condition. Then we stopped. We stopped at concepts, and we started to believe that access had become more important than outcome. We started to believe if you simply make education accessible, you've done your job. And we settled into a public education system that again provided high-quality education to those in the middle and upper classes. As for those who were of lower socioeconomic status, we simply shook our heads and said, "Isn't that a shame ... If they'd send us a better raw material, we could turn out a better product." We blamed the color of their skin. We blamed their socioeconomic level. We blamed problems on the native tongue students from other nations bring with them. We blame many things, but at the end of the day, huge numbers of our children cannot read, cannot write, cannot calculate mathematically. We shrug our shoulders and say we're doing the best we can. And typically, in my world of public education-and I've given 23 years to it-we say if we had a little bit more money and a little bit more time we could fix that problem. The reality of it is that the system doesn't protect the children. It doesn't work on behalf of the children. It protects and works on behalf of the special interest groups that have held public education in their clutches for 30 years or better. The adults always know how to take care of the adults. Who will speak up on behalf of the children? I am a child of a single parent. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of six children. My father died when my twin brother and I were 4 years old, and he left us, with those four other siblings, with a mother who had an eighth-grade education and no money. But our mother was an incredible woman. She cleaned homes, she worked in kitchens, in restaurants-typically two jobs a day to feed us, clothe us, and shelter us. Every day she turned us over to a group of professional educators. And while they understood our circumstances, and while they empathized with the challenges that we faced, never did they pity us for our plight. Never did they expect something less of the six Brogan children, merely because we had only one parent. Never did they expect the Brogan children to behave less well than other children because we had less money. Never did they create for us a two-tiered system of standards, where they expected one thing of one group of children, and something less of the Brogan children because of the challenges that we faced. And I'm convinced that's why I now have the honor to serve as the 15th lieutenant governor of the great state of Florida. My five other brothers and sisters, now scattered across the country, have all made incredible contributions through faith and family and friends. We had a mother who loved us, who cared about us, and who gave us appropriate values. And we were given the opportunity of an education system that did not have two expectations, two standards. I continue to hear from many professional educators that we cannot expect a high level of learning from some children. They'll point to statistics to "prove" that these children have never been able to meet normal standards or rise to even average expectations. But we must not grasp at those statistics and use them to excuse our own performance and dedication. We must not furrow our brows and say the problem is with the children, that it's something inherent in the poor, in people of color, or in people who speak other languages when they come to our country. Because if we do, then the public education system, that genius of contrivance, is no longer the dream that it was when it was created. How do we reinvigorate the system? We need a standard. Florida is a very diverse state, but what our children learn in algebra in Miami should be no different than what our children learn in algebra in Jacksonville or in Pensacola. And I'm not talking about those fuzzy standards, where what's important is how a child feels about an equation. Two plus two is four-was, is, always will be. It is not very elegant. It is not very sexy. It is what it is, but if a child doesn't know that basic fact, he will have a diminished capacity to grow and to become everything that God wants him to be in this country. That is a fact. So we can dress up standards, we can make them very elegant things, we can make them largely philosophical. But in this state what we're attempting to do is recognize that algebra I is algebra I, and every child in the state of Florida needs to know it and needs to master it as a part of a graduation requirement. Should we test? Yes. But I'm not an advocate for national assessment; I do not believe in it. I'm fearful that when you create a national anything you will water it down to the least common denominator. We have done that for 30 years; it's time we tried something different. We need to hold that bar high. We need to make certain that there is accountability in the system. In Florida, we provide incentives to schools that are improving. We believe that money can and should be given directly to a school that is demonstrating improvement. They have earned it. If they plow that money back into their school and find new and creative ways to continue that march to improvement, they should be applauded. That's what capitalism is all about. It is rewarding people for doing the right thing. In like fashion, there needs to be action for failure. Again, I am a public-school educator, but I must acknowledge that we have cases of failure-even chronic failure-that have been festering for many, many years. Why doesn't anything happen in those cases? Why isn't there change? There is no change, there is no improvement, because there is no expectation of improvement. It has always been easier to simply point to the children and say, "They're lucky they're getting anything at all. This is the best we can do with what we've got." That isn't good enough anymore. America cannot have second-rate education for our children. The tyranny of low expectations has to stop. It's a tyranny that has held our public education system down. Accountability needs to be placed on parents; it needs to be placed on teachers; it needs to be placed on the children themselves. It needs to be placed on each and every one of us. It's also time to address the hollowness of the heart that seems to be rampant on our school campuses today. Children should not be afraid to walk or play in the park. Parents should have a fundamental right to know that when they send their children off to school in the morning, they will get them back. Today, we are afraid to talk about values and principles and character, those basic concepts that every child needs to learn to live in a civilized society. We fear these things, when they should be our foundations. In the immediate aftermath of the horror of Columbine, many declared that the best way to prevent school shootings is to enact more gun laws. But no gun law will stop the nightmare. The true cause is the hollowness of the hearts of many of our children. We continue to talk about separation of church and state and we even threaten to imprison people who would dare to lead a group of school children in prayer on a school campus. And yet one of the most beautiful stories to come out of Columbine was that of the teacher who huddled with a group of those high-school children in a tiny room for two hours. He led them in prayer. Some people would like him to be in prison for leading those children in prayer. We have our value system askew, and it is time to recognize again that this is a country, this is a state, steeped in family, steeped in faith, and steeped in friends.

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