I became a non-believer in January 1992.

I was teaching in a school district that “balanced” the schedules of teachers of “gifted/talented” students by assigning each a section of non-college-bound seniors. It was the tried-and-true way to cover classes that nobody wanted to teach.

From day one, my seniors made clear that they didn’t want to be in class. I shared that sentiment. The course had clearly been designed to ask so little of students that they could not fail to graduate. It inspired nobody.

Fortunately, I saw in those reluctant students glimpses of my dad, a brilliant drop-out. I unilaterally jettisoned the approved curriculum, substituting materials and strategies I used with my advanced classes. Doing so violated district policy and put my job in jeopardy.

It was the most successful teaching of my career, but there were failures, too. It was those kids I couldn’t reach—that the education system had never reached—who caused me to recant my union’s doctrine of one-size-fits-all education. I swore a new allegiance—to freedom of choice in education.

Nearly 30 years after my break with education orthodoxy, we find ourselves in a declared pandemic that challenges the modern creed for correct living.

Suddenly, we’re re-examining the dogmas of ever-denser housing, ever-more-mass transit, ever-larger sporting and entertainment venues, ever-more-mega malls, churches, hospitals and school districts.

Suddenly, truck drivers are recognized in the pantheon of “essential workers.” And those who live in fly-over country no longer qualify automatically for the censure of elites like Jackson Kernion, the graduate instructor in philosophy at UC Berkeley, who famously tweeted that rural Americans are “bad people who have made bad life decisions.”

Millions of households have been catapulted into home-educating. Thousands of brick-and-mortar school districts have been fast-forwarded into the world of distance learning.

Perhaps this shaking up of the status quo will eventually lead Minnesota out of perennial contention for Worst-in-the-Nation achievement gap. That gap, according to an October 2019 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, cannot be attributed to racial and ethnic differences alone, but is “a socioeconomic problem as well…a long-term, persistent problem that affects both rural and urban parts of the state.”

The achievement gap and stubbornly dismal proficiency scores—2019 results reported by Minnesota Department of Education as 53.9% in math and 58% in reading—won’t improve by repeated application of Professor Harold Hill’s “Think System” or by doing in a bigger way the very things that have failed again and again. In 2016 Minnesotans spent $10.5 billion on K-12 education, but as Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker notes, “If we keep doing the same things, we will get the same results.”

It would be a real tragedy if during this time of national reflection—this time of making things work differently—we were to persist in make-believe about education. It’s time to allow Minnesota families a full range of educational choices. It’s time to let our education dollars follow each child to a schooling situation that will yield results.

Deb Kaczmarek is a member of the Rice County Republicans.
Originally published in the Lonsdale Area News Review May 2020