My Public Education Frustration Commentator Joseph C. Phillips recounts a frustrating experience with the public school system. Phillips is an actor and a columnist living in Los Angeles.

My Public Education Frustration

My Public Education Frustration

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Commentator Joseph C. Phillips recounts a frustrating experience with the public school system. Phillips is an actor and a columnist living in Los Angeles.

ED GORDON, host:

Most people agree the American public school system could use some improvement. Commentator Joseph C. Phillips says he has a few ideas where to start.

Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS (Commentator, Los Angeles): The parents sat quietly listening as the third grade teacher explained in detail the coursework our children would be assigned and how it complied with all of the state and federal regulations.

A mother raised her hand and asked what the teacher was doing outside of the government curriculum to reach the children. The teacher's eyes rolled into the back of her head. It was truly fascinating to see.

She dropped her jaw and this bright and articulate woman began babbling like a mental patient. The fact was that after fulfilling all the government dictates, there was precious little time left for creative teaching.

From the curriculum lessons to how teachers must set up seating in the classroom, bureaucrats and politicians are increasingly directing everything that goes on in the classrooms. In some cities, teachers are even told how they must decorate their bulletin boards.

All of this micromanaging is of course driven by the realization that our public school system has been failing. Education is an industry supporting millions of workers; teachers, office personnel, janitorial workers, food service staff, and others. School districts like Los Angeles Unified have budgets in the multi-billions of dollars. Education is big business.

However, unlike other big businesses, the business of education remains accountable not to the consumer, parents and students, but to the bureaucrats and politicians that write the checks and continue to churn out mandates.

Now one tenant of the business world is when the consumer has no power, business has no incentive to operate efficiently or effectively. High dropout rates, poor reading skills, math and science test scores that hover near the bottom internationally, and millions of wasted dollars annually prove the business of education is not exempt. It also suggests it is time to empower the education consumer, which necessarily requires that we rethink our notions of public education.

Now, such suggestions raise the ire of politicians and special interests. They charge that any change will destroy the public school system and that if only we would commit to our young people by spending more money. Well if spending is the measure of our commitment to education, then we are more than committed; we are downright dedicated.

The federal government currently spends more money on education than it invests in defense. Per pupil spending is three times higher today than it was 40 years ago. Pupil to teacher ratio is 40 percent lower, and yet reading scores have remained unchanged. Resources are certainly a factor in education; however, the greater factor in successful education is how effective available resources are spent.

Businesses are cost-effective when they have the proper incentive. Funding education from the bottom up as opposed to the top down, choice, will provide the education business with such an incentive. To rethink the public education framework is not to advocate an end to publicly funded schools. It is to ask the question, does public education simply mean the brick and mortar structures that cater to children in a particular zip code? Or should it mean, using public dollars to educate children in schools that do the best job, whether those schools are in the basement of a church or the basement of a home?

It should also mean empowering the consumer by putting choice, not in the hands of government, but in the hands of parents, where it properly belongs.

So long as our schools remain accountable only to politicians, children will continue to suffer when ill political winds blow from Washington. A good public education system makes our nation stronger and more productive. Choice strengthens public education because it requires schools, like other businesses, to please the consumer, which will ultimately loose the chains of bureaucracy that bind talented teachers that really do want to make a difference.

GORDON: Joseph C. Phillips is an actor and columnist living in Los Angeles.

This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.