Ken Campbell and Jamie Gass: Giving students a ghost of a chance

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BOSTON — "The dominant spirit that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air ," reads "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Washington Irving's early-19th-century folktale, "is the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball."

Halloween is ideal for learning how Western culture has long used creepy ghosts and supernatural specters as literary devices to teach lessons that torment the living.

Paranormal poltergeist stories may scare the wits out of people, but it's the data around America's $800 billion-a-year K-12 education business ruled by teachers' unions that are truly terrifying.

For example, there are 1.2 million young adults who drop out of U.S. high schools every year. They commit 75 percent of crimes and heavily populate the American prison system that accounts for 22 percent of the world's inmates. These are the real forgotten souls.

In the U.S. generally, and in states like New York, California, and Florida, between 20 and 25 percent of students don't graduate. In big-city school districts, including Washington, D.C., with largely poor and minority students, 32 percent never finish.

In the Boston Public Schools, which spends over $20,000 per pupil, the four-year dropout rate is approximately 18 percent. In New York City, per-pupil spending is $25,200, and 25 percent of students leave empty-handed.

Irving's Headless Horseman is a traditional American example of the frightening, revenge-driven ghost. This decapitated phantasm rides nightly seeking in death to restore what was lost in life. Sleepy Hollow's mischief-making bully, "Brom Bones" Van Brunt, uses the horseman's aura to scare off the superstitious Yankee schoolmaster Ichabod Crane.

All too often, public education is dominated by school choice opponents whose policies block students from exiting chronically underperforming schools. Meanwhile, decades of entrenched central office bureaucracies, hollow curricular fads, and other forms of edu-hocus pocus have institutionalized urban districts' decline.

Abundant research also makes clear what common sense should dictate: the major reason students drop out is pure boredom, which ensues when they are robbed of intellectual seriousness and meaningful educational choices.

The grim facts of this school-to-prison pipeline reveal that American public education is literally boring millions of students into lives of unthinking criminality.

No author teaches us more about how violence begets more violence than Shakespeare. British literary scholar Sir Jonathan Bate writes that the "Bard of Avon" emulated the ancient Roman tragedian Seneca in using ghosts to convey hidden knowledge of crimes.

For instance, the kingly ghost of Hamlet's father enlightens his perplexed, princely son about his own murder:

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"I am thy father's spirit,

Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word,

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood "

Truly, something is rotten in Denmark. In plain sight, powerful municipal political machines bankrolled by teachers' unions block competition from school choice, while disregarding basic accountability for the chronic underperformance and high dropout rates their districts produce.

Public education's dirty little secret is that 7,000 students drop out of school daily, or one every 26 seconds.

A 2010 study predicted that if K-12 education could have boosted urban students' graduation rates to suburban students' levels by 2020, it would have added more than $310 billion to our economy. These are the haunting figures that should keep the American education industry up at night.

In Charles Dickens' classic tale of ghostly salvation, A Christmas Carol, the tortured spirit of Jacob Marley shames his old business partner Ebenezer Scrooge towards enlightenment and redemption.

"I wear the chain I forged in life," Marley's ghost tells Scrooge. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"

So, too, the teachers' unions' interlocking chain of membership dues, legions of lobbyists, vast political contributions, and ironclad contracts have forged an education system that dooms many urban students' futures.

Unmistakably then, people of conscience must fight these disturbing realities. Only greater academic quality, public accountability, and more school choices will help give prospective dropouts even the ghost of a chance at better lives.

Ken Campbell is an executive director with IDEA Public Schools in Louisiana and a past president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.


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