Since leaving the Presidency, Jimmy Carter, who brokered the peace between Egypt and Israel, has continued a commitment to conflict resolution and community building. Programs and activities he takes part in--from home-construction for the needy, to international conflict mediation through the Carter Center--reflect this commitment. Talking Peace, his latest book, calls on America's young people to take up the cause of community building. Below, he relates a school visit that showed him how necessary such a task may be for many in the next generation:
In an Atlanta middle school not long ago, the students were asking me very hard questions--stimulating questions that I hadn't heard anywhere else. One 6th grader asked, "President Carter, why do some old people lose their Social Security?'' Being familiar with the law, I assured her that this did not happen unless the person began to earn a lot more money. She replied, "Well, my grandfather doesn't earn any money. He lives under a bridge in west Atlanta, and they took his away because he doesn't have a mailing address.''
This is the kind of question I wouldn't get in my own grandchildren's school. (Later, I discussed this case with the regional Social Security administrator, who promised to investigate and resolve the problem. Although I was glad to help, it shouldn't be necessary for a former President to intervene.)
Afterward, I asked their principal what the main problems were in the school. She said that many of the boys believed that their future success, their status in life, was dependent on their owning a semiautomatic weapon. When I asked her about the girls, she told me that getting pregnant was probably their biggest problem--and especially among 6th graders, who are usually only 12 years old. She said this was true because these very young girls have trouble defending themselves and are more attractive to older men because they are less likely to have AIDS than older girls.
The problems in the lives of these young people are very complicated and have no simple solutions. Troubled children must be identified and helped on an individual basis. Every teacher in every classroom needs to have one or more aides so that students can receive more individual attention. Moreover, school resources need to be improved--this means better books and teaching materials, but also improved playgrounds, athletic equipment, and facilities for other extracurricular activities. Major corporations and banks that are participating in the Atlanta Project [a Carter Center program creating citizen partnerships in disadvantaged neighborhoods with local businesses, government, and social services] soon realize that any investment in our schools will pay off down the road in more stable and better-trained employees.
Talking Peace: A Vision for the Next Generation, by Jimmy Carter. Copyright 1993 by Jimmy Carter. Reprinted by permission of Dutton Children's Books, a division of Penguin Books U.S.A.
Myron Lieberman, educator, author, and senior research scholar at the Social Philosphy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University, is doubtful that public schools have the capacity for self-improvement. In Public Education: An Autopsy, he espouses a consumer-oriented system of education and praises the nascent experiments in for-profit schooling. Below, he offers one theory on why public schools are, in his view, so complacent:
One of the major themes in public administration is the tendency for producers to gain control over the agencies that are supposed to regulate them on behalf of consumers. Utility commissions are "captured'' by the electric-power companies. Health-care agencies are dominated by the American Medical Association. The Federal Aviation Administration was controlled by the airlines. And so on. A large body of literature is devoted to "regulatory capture'' and its undesirable consequences.
A question arises: If even agencies that regulate producers tend to become controlled by the producers, what can we expect when the producing agency itself is accorded the role of consumer protection? The answer is clear: We can expect producer interests to prevail over consumer interests. Anticompetitive policies will win out over policies that foster competition. To the extent that producers are able to avoid competition, consumers suffer from the absence of innovation. Clearly, this is what has happened in public education. Teacher tenure, excessive licensing requirements, protection against layoffs, limitations on contracting out, limitations on assignments, on teaching load, on transfers--a panoply of statutory and contractual provisions protect school district personnel, but only at an enormous cost to consumers.
To be blunt about it, the largest cost of producer domination is the impossibility of fundamental improvement. The past few decades have witnessed significant improvements in health care, transportation, financial services, telecommunications--virtually every major service except education. Meanwhile, education is carried on as it has been for generations. In no field is there more rhetoric about change, and in no field is there less actual change reflecting real improvement in the quality or cost of service.
Public Education: An Autopsy, by Myron Lieberman. Copyright 1993 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press.