In 1986, I enrolled my oldest daughter in the same public school that my husband and I had attended.  I knew from my experience in public education that there were problems, but I was hopeful that, with our participation in her schooling, she would be fine.  During the next few years, I went from being an interested, excited parent and taxpayer to a disillusioned and, finally, angry parent and taxpayer.

Our daughter, Katie, went all the way through public school and is now a sophomore in a small, independent liberal-arts college, finally out of the system.  Our second daughter, Virginia, is 16.  She finished the second grade in public school and is now homeschooled.  Tanya, who is 11, has never attended public school.  The idea of, and faith in, public education is hard to give up, but we’ve come to the conclusion that there is no choice for us but to get out.

How long can a failed bureaucracy continue?  It is clear to me that the educational system in Kentucky exists to serve itself and the marketplace.  And, because our educational system has become so heavily vocational, it now serves corporations by supplying them with workers.  Our public-education system has become as dishonest as our land-grant universities, by serving the people they are mandated to serve last—or not at all.  Because, I suppose, we need some kind of public education, I know that, in challenging the only existing system, I should be able to provide some answers that I can’t provide.  The questions must be asked, however, or this appalling situation won’t change.

Besides my experience with my own children, I have tutored public-school students for 20 years in my home, kids who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, some by doctors and some by the school system itself.  (The fact that nearly all of these children are being medicated to improve their performance is a problem to be addressed another time.)  I also work with kids whose parents think they need some kind of “enrichment.”  Except for a couple in high school, all of my students make A’s and B’s.  Most of these children are interesting and lively until they start on their schoolwork.  Then, they disappear and a completely passive child takes the place of the interesting one.  They simply wait for the “answer” to be handed over.  Most of them have learned that there is a system and that they can beat it by waiting.  I have made it a habit in the last few years to ask each child what he studied that day.  I have yet to get a specific answer from one child.  Lest it be thought that these children are trying to be difficult, let me make it clear that these kids want to please and long to know the answers to my questions.  They simply don’t know what they studied that day!  They don’t have the vocabulary to tell me.

A great fraud is being perpetrated on them.  Most of my students come to me with notes from their teachers instructing the parents to ask them about Paris, or Indians, or bears, or whatever the tidbit of the day was.  And so I, and I suppose the parents, ask them.  Even with this much prompting, I have yet to get a real answer involving nouns, and I have yet to see a note saying, “Wait a minute, back up, let’s go over that again.”  This is why these kids are learning nothing while making A’s and B’s.  No one expects them to learn anything.  Of course, that list of things I used as examples of subjects studied illustrates one of the biggest problems in our educational system.  Our kids are introduced to a little of this and then a little of that, as if their goal in life is to be a Jeopardy contestant.

Perhaps the most puzzling part of this mess is the amount of time the schools spend every day teaching hygiene and what they call “life skills.”  (Reading, writing, and arithmetic are evidently not life skills.)  When she was in the second grade, my daughter Virginia had two weeks of study on how to brush her teeth.  Tolstoy didn’t use as many pieces of paper writing War and Peace as our state government did on “How to Brush Your Teeth” handouts.  (They are still handed out.)  The ultimate irony is that, as soon as these kids reach junior high and high school, they will have nearly unlimited access to soft drinks in the school building.  They will be encouraged to replace milk and water with these drinks by the same system that worked so hard to ensure their dental health in elementary school.

One of my students is an intelligent 11-year-old boy, the son of a third-generation dairy farmer here in Henry County.  He wants to be the fourth to farm his family’s place.  He is one of those students who can’t tell me what he’s done in school that day when he comes to my house afterward.  After several years of tutoring, he can, however, write an excellent paragraph about how to raise a bucket calf, or rake a field of hay, or prepare a calf to show at the state fair.  This great kid gets in trouble about once a week—but only when he and his buddies are in the “How to get along with others” class.  They are bored in this class, and so, in the grand tradition of little boys, they act up.  Why shouldn’t they?  This boy has a great family and cultural life.  He needs to know how to read well, to use mathematics, to understand the science of how things work, and he needs to know where he is.  What he needs to know to be a good farmer is, by any standard I honor, a great education.  This, of course, would never occur to the powers-that-be who run our state school system.  This boy doesn’t need hours wasted learning how to be nice to other people based on some Sesame Street idea of political correctness.

I mentioned earlier that raising these kinds of questions requires at least attempting to find answers, and while I see no good answers for a huge, failing public-school system, I have found an answer for my children.  Two days a week, my daughters attend a cottage school in Louisville called the Highlands Latin School.  Cottage schools are little schools put together to support homeschooling families.  The Highlands Latin School was founded by an amazing woman named Cheryl Lowe, a former public-school chemistry teacher.  Mrs. Lowe is a self-taught Latin scholar, a writer of Latin textbooks, and one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve ever seen.  Besides Latin, our school offers logic, classical history, mathematics, English, literature, and, this past semester, a course for high-schoolers on three of Shakespeare’s plays.  This school does what schools are intended to do: It puts students together with teachers who have mastered a discipline.  As Mrs. Lowe says, “You can’t solve all the problems first; you simply must start somewhere.”

Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of a saving remnant, but I am afraid that is what we’ve come to.  We must be true conservatives who conserve what is worth saving—starting with our children.