Few people in the field of education bring the kind of credibility to a debate on faith-based schools that Andy Smarick brings. So his keynote speech Tuesday to the American Center for School Choice’s Commission on Faith-based Schools in New York was all the more riveting for his decision not to preach to the choir. His message – that to reverse the decline, faith-based educators need also to look in the mirror – amounted to a family intervention.
“Without putting too fine of a point on it,” Smarick said, “an H.G. Wells quote seems particularly fitting: ‘Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.’ ”
Smarick criticized faith-based schools – and private schools in general – for not adapting to a new educational environment driven by regulatory accountability and performance measures, and for not being more transparent about their academic performance. He challenged a passage in the commission’s report:
“The following paragraph from your report is particularly instructive: ‘America is losing a valuable national asset — not because it has become obsolescent, not because the demand for it has disappeared, not because the need for it has been satisfied by other entities, but because we have a misguided public policy … ‘
“It is my humble contention that these policies are misguided as much because of our behavior as anyone else’s. I’m sad to say, most believe we currently don’t deserve better policies. Our elected officials are understandably making education decisions based on the conditions of 2013, and we’re acting like it’s 1963.”
The public and charter sectors are transparent in ways that better inform parents and satisfy the demands of those in government who pay the bills, Smarick told the audience. So private schools that want to constitute a viable third sector need to embrace the reality seen in most Western nations:
“Private school’s participation in these nations’ public school systems is contingent on certain things. For example, they have to adhere to the same content standards, use a common curriculum, administer the same assessments, or other things along those lines. The private schools retain a great deal of operational autonomy, but the price of public support is some form of public accountability.
“So in closing, here’s my recommendation for The Grand Bargain. In exchange for a scholarship or tax-credit program, we agree to a charter-like accountability system. Under the new public program, any private school that wants to participate — meaning, receive public dollars — submits an application to an authorizer. That body determines if each applying school has the promise to provide a high-quality education to its students and run a tight financial and operational ship.”
Smarick’s speech is posted on the Fordham Institute’s blog, and it is well worth your time. Read it there.