New Albany resident Philip Derrow is a retired business owner. He was a two-term member of the New Albany-Plain Local Board of Education. He is a frequent Columbus Dispatch contributor.

K-12 education is too often failing in its most elementary role, and neither the cost of that failure nor its solution will ultimately be measured in money.

Two recent stories with markedly different angles on the challenges facing primary and secondary education are more closely related than they might appear.

In “Divided Upper Arlington school board joins lawsuit to end universal vouchers in Ohio” the board chose to take a partisan position on Ohio’s school voucher program. Then, “Study shows Ohio students losing ground in math post pandemic” highlighted the failure of Ohio schools to make up for the educational losses caused by their response to the pandemic.

Universal vouchers in Upper Arlington:Divided Upper Arlington school board joins lawsuit to end universal vouchers in Ohio

I have long argued that the primary role of K-12 education is to successfully impart foundational knowledge to students in literacy, math, the natural sciences, history, civics and the arts. Schools have only 12 short years to convey the basic knowledge acquired from over ten thousand years of human civilization. Teachers and staff more than have their hands full just doing that.

Schools that cannot fulfill that role shouldn’t spend a penny on much of anything else.

If only that were true. Ohioans spend tens of billions of dollars on K-12 education while tens of thousands of Ohio kids will leave high school woefully ignorant of that foundational knowledge.

The money each district spends is even less connected to the academic outcomes they achieve. Columbus City Schools spends just under $20,000 per student each year, while Upper Arlington spends just under $17,000. My home district of New Albany-Plain Local Schools spends just under $13,000.

Which one produces the best results for kids and the best value for taxpayers? Look up these schools on Ohio’s school report card and see for yourself.

Nationally, the problem is even worse as the U.S. falls further and further behind our international peers, trading partners and competitors.

The fight over vouchers for private schools, while often framed as being elitist, racist or religious in nature, is instead ultimately about parents’ growing dissatisfaction with the academic performance and/or political partisanship of their public schools.

Voucher arguments:Ohio lawmakers want ‘apples to apples’ comparison between public and private schools

Of course, money is always given as a big reason for the fight. Public schools rightly complain about losing funding, and parents of kids in private schools rightly complain about having to pay for school twice — once in taxes and a second time in private tuition.

I learned early in my business career that if an employee quit or a customer changed suppliers because of money, money was rarely the actual reason. If I hadn’t given them lots of other reasons to leave, they would have given me lots of other chances to resolve any actual complaints over pay or price.

The same is true for most parents seeking educational options for their children. Public schools have always been a microcosm of their communities.

When Randi Weingarten, the head of the nation’s second-largest teacher’s union in the U.S., wrote about public schools that “They are the manifestation of our civic values and ideals…,” she ignores the fact that our nation is sharply divided about what those values and ideals are or should be, and that her members have no business trying to be the arbiters of them.

Public schools could — and should be — a respite for kids from those conflicts. But rather than focus on the primary role of imparting foundational knowledge, far too many teachers and administrators have chosen to take one-sided and highly partisan positions on virtually every issue.

Parents and voters have rightly responded with their choice of schools for their kids and their choice of elected representatives who’ve put the voucher programs in place to support them.

I believe in the importance of good public schools, but they shouldn’t be immune to the consequences of their failures. They should keep students and the money that follows them because they’re a better choice, not by suing to prevent parents from having it.

There is, however, a significant accountability gap in the current voucher programs.

If private schools are going to get hundreds of millions of public funding, as they are likely to do under these programs, their students should be held to the same standards and testing requirements.

Public schools need to refocus on their primary academic role, stop trying to replace parents and learn from parents’ choices instead.

New Albany resident Philip Derrow is a retired business owner. He was a two-term member of the New Albany-Plain Local Board of Education. He is a frequent Columbus Dispatch contributor.

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