08/11/2011 03:53 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2011

The 35,000 Kids Next Door to the White House

Our national conversation about public education is sinking faster than the Titanic; as the band plays on, the good ship public education is about to capsize and sink. Instead of thought, we have shouting; instead of genuine expertise, we have one day wonders. Leading this charge to nowhere, a few savvy educational gurus dominate the national media. According to them we can fix the system in a year or two -- if only we listen to them.

Somewhere between common sense and out and out fabrication, the truth is an orphan. Squaring off on Twitter and Facebook, our leading lights posture and pose while they hawk their silver bullets and themselves shamelessly.

Meanwhile back at reality, our commitment to public education as The Great Equalizer teeters dangerously on the knife's edge between deregulation and irrelevance. A few blocks from the White House, 35,000 children go to bed hungry every night, just a small fraction of America's growing number of children living in poverty. Where are their futures in the media show we have come to call educational reform? Where are our leaders in the struggle for justice for these children -- hiding behind the educational Potemkin Village known as the Standards Movement?

Public education was always a radical idea. It wasn't the British monarch that proposed establishing a system of free public schools in the colonies; it was Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The Founders believed that the right kind of government was essential for the most important social virtue -- justice. They feared power and its tendency to corrupt public life. The greatest bulwark against corruption was an educated and enlightened citizenry--hence public education.

Government wasn't a dirty word to the nation's Founders; good government was the fly wheel of a democratic and civil society. We need a national vision for public education that draws its ethical purpose from the vision of the Founders and looks forward to the 21st century as a time for a genuine second American Enlightenment. This is why I have proposed a children's education bill of rights. They are basic, but essential:

  1. The right to a neighborhood public school or public school of choice that is funded for excellence;
  2. The right to physical and emotional health and safety;
  3. The right to have his or her heritage, background, and religious differences honored, incorporated in study, and celebrated in the culture of the school;
  4. The right to develop individual learning styles and strategies to the greatest extent possible;
  5. The right to an excellent and dedicated teacher;
  6. The right to a school leader with vision and educational expertise;
  7. The right to a curriculum based on relevance, depth and flexibility;
  8. The right of access to the most powerful educational technologies;
  9. The right to fair, relevant, and learner-based evaluations;
  10. The right to complete high school.

These rights are expressions of public education's fundamental purpose -- the creation of an open society. In an open and democratic society, facts matter. In educational reform, we cannot proceed without facts about how children learn, the best way to prepare and support teachers, how 21st century classrooms should be organized, and how we can create a system of public schools that is economically sustainable. We can find answers to these questions, but time is running short.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States ranks 22nd out of 30 industrialized countries in terms of educational well being. Many of our children lack a desk to study at, a computer or even textbooks. We are slipping further and further behind other nations in preparing our children for the challenges of the 21st century.

Those 35,000 hungry children at the doorstep of the White House deserve better than sentimental speeches, they deserve our genuine commitment to right this wrong. The American spirit of fairness and can-do is still strong. There is no better way to fulfill the destiny inherent in the Declaration of Independence than to create a system of public schools where every child is able to develop his or her talents to their fullest. It is the essence of who we are as a people. Public education belongs to the people. Plain and simple.