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Education Gaps: Tackling America's Education Woes

John Stonestreet interviews Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation and Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media, on the path to change education.

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Education: It's an issue that continues to be heatedly debated in our nation. Why are kids trapped in bad schools? Why are Christian, and indeed all parents, limited in school choice? What can be done about it? During today's broadcast, you'll hear from Michael Flaherty, one of the people behind the new film, "Won't Back Down," as well as Jennifer Marshall from The Heritage Foundation.

Without good education, society cannot prepare the next generation to assume positions of knowledgeable responsibility, and too many kids are trapped in bad schools. But there are solutions, as today's guests illustrate.
Jennifer Marshall, Director of Domestic Policy Studies
at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Marshall, who serves as Director of Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. has been integrally involved in making recommendations to the federal and state governments on how best to confront the brokenness in much of American education. And the jurisdiction of Heritage's headquarters, she says, provides a miniaturized model of the besetting ailments in urban education nationwide: rampant violence (one in eight students in the district has been threatened with a weapon at school), horrific test scores (the District ranks last in the nation), and an abysmal dropout rate (barely half of students in D.C. graduate).

The solutions to these problems, she believes, will comes from recognizing that something deeper is at work than a lack of public funding. Indeed, D.C.'s schools are among the best-funded in America:

"In education, we can't just say 'more money and more federal programs' are going to do the trick. We've got to get back to [asking] what is it that makes education succeed? Parents should be responsible and have authority to make decisions about their children's education and upbringing. And that means that they need to have parental choice in education. Some people have the income to be able to choose a private over a public school. But that's not true for low income parents. But as a society...we want that opportunity to be available to everyone."

That's why Heritage advocates strongly for school choice, a mechanism which has been proven to benefit students without increasing public costs, and which Jennifer says she has seen give entire families and communities a new outlook on life. These avenues include vouchers within the public school system, as well as allowing parents to choose private education and charter institutions over failing schools. The money, she says, should follow the child. Not the other way around.

Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media
But while proposed policies can make things easier, ultimately it's up to parents to reform the system, and Christians, Jennifer believes, have a unique responsibility in our churches and communities.

"This is not primarily a material problem," she says. "It's a manifestation of something much deeper. And that much deeper issue is a relational breakdown, often fatherlessness or the complete decay of communities that will help a child succeed in life and get ahead. The first thing that I think is critically important is for Christians and churches to bring that relational capital we have to bear."

Only when we involve ourselves on an individual level through coming alongside children in failing schools, sharing the burdens of families, encouraging the hard work of an excellent teacher, or helping parents who strive to offer their children a better education, can we make a lasting difference.

Our second guest, Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media, opens up another avenue by which Christians and people of good will can partner to spread the word about education reform. That avenue is entertainment, and in the case of Christian studio, Walden Media, the latest contribution is a film called "Won't Back Down," playing in theaters nationwide now.

Directed by Daniel Barnes and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, the film tells the story of a single mother struggling to give her daughter a chance at a good education against nearly impossible odds. Trapped in an inner-city school controlled by interests whose last concern is the students' ability to learn, Gyllenhaal and Davis' characters join forces in an effort to take back their school and bring about the kind of change no one else can offer.

The film, says Flaherty, has been the brunt of serious criticism by teachers unions and others who see it as an attack on their interests. But as John Stonestreet points out and Flaherty agrees, "This is not an issue of Right vs. Left. This is an issue of right vs. wrong."

But despite opposition, says Flaherty, the bipartisan support for this film and its message has been tremendous.

"We showed the film at the Democratic National Convention the head of the DNC--Antonio Villaraigosathe Mayor of Los Angeles was very up-front in an interview with The New York Times in which he said that the teachers unions have been a big obstacle to reform in Los Angeles and around the country. And this is a guy who used to be a union organizer!" 

These unions, he says, often subscribe to "a very-self-defeating proposition, which is that all teachers are the same. But it's just not true, and it's not fair to the overwhelming majority of teachers out there who are great at their jobto say that they deserve nothing more than the worst teacher in their profession. It's ludicrous."

The remarkable thing, says Flaherty, is that reform-minded parents and teachers in several states can actually follow the film's lead and "take over" failing schools:

"Some states actually have this in place," says John, "that parents can actually rise up and take over their schools, is that right?"

"Yes, it's now in five or six states. It started in California. It's coming up for a vote in Michigan, it's coming up for a vote in Florida, and the basic idea is that, if you're in a failing school...and more than 50% of the parents sign on, they can bring in new teachers and a new administration."

"What do you hope will come out of this movie, Michael?" asks John. "What is the Church's responsibility?"

"The one thing I want to get beyond the conversation is a sense of urgency." says Flaherty. "Parents whose kids are in failing schools do not have the luxury of time. I love Dr. King and what he wrote. And of course, he got a lot of grief, because he would always talk about 'the fierce urgency of now.' And people would always say to him, 'Martin, Martin, slow down!' And he would reply, 'No, listen. These rights are given by God and I'm not going to slow down until we have true justice.' And that's why I think that as believers, this issue is incredibly important to us."

Relating how he's seen local churches open their doors to students for study and tutoring, he "I think that we really need the moral authority of the Church to step up and make sure that something is done on this immediately... In this country we've never had any kind of social change without the Church being at the forefront: civil rights, suffrage, every issue. What better way for us to witness to people that our creator loves us the same and wants the best for us than to help these kids?"

Learn More...

  • Watch the Trailer for Walden Media's new film, "Won't Back Down." >>CLICK HERE.
  • Watch the Trailer for Walden Media's documentary on education reform, "Waiting for 'Superman.'" >>CLICK HERE.


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In my previous comment, in the list of movies, I said "Stand by Me" by mistake. I meant to say "Lean on Me" instead.
School Choice
I have been a big advocate of quality education for most of my life. While I haven't seen "Waiting for Superman" yet (I don't get out much these days but maybe I'll rent it), I have watched movies on the subject of educating those thought ineducable from "My Fair Lady" and "To Sir, with Love" (and its sequel "To Sir, with Love II") to "Stand and Deliver", "Stand by Me", and "Dangerous Minds". While I have no children, I have worked as a tutor (mostly math and computer literacy).

I have consequently been a supporter of school vouchers for a long time. This interview made me jealous of D.C. because they have vouchers and we here in California don't. There have been propositions authorizing them (1993, 2000) and I would listen in horror at the radio and TV commercials and debates in which the opposition (liberal teacher-union-supported Democrats) accused the supporters of vouchers of trying to make it so poor children couldn't go to school at all because they couldn't afford to, the vouchers being inadequate to pay for private schools, and the public schools being made worse because the middle class children would leave with vouchers etc. etc. etc. There were hardly any pro-voucher commercials because the teacher unions with their lies could out-spend the supporters. The same thing has happened with anti-cigarette propositions, but that's a separate issue. Consequently the propositions lost.
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