Ex­am­in­ing a ‘Na­tion at Risk’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

It’s all too easy for law­mak­ers to throw cash at a prob­lem. Af­ter all, they’re spend­ing some­body else’s money. Take the way they’ve han­dled (or, rather, mis­han­dled) ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy.

Twenty-five years ago, the Na­tional Com­mis­sion on Ex­cel­lent Ed­u­ca­tion re­leased a bru­tally hon­est study de­tail­ing the fail­ings in our school sys­tem: “If an un­friendly for­eign power had at­tempted to im­pose on Amer­ica the medi­ocre ed­u­ca­tional per­for­mance that ex­ists to­day, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

In re­sponse, all lev­els of gov­ern­ment de­clared war the way they usu­ally do: by in­creas­ing spend­ing.

This year, Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers will spend more than $9,200 on the av­er­age pub­lic-school stu­dent. That’s a real in­crease of 69 per­cent over the per pupil ex­pen­di­ture in 1980. The to­tal bill for a stu­dent who re­mains through high school will be al­most $100,000.

This spend­ing would be worth­while if it gave us the re­sults we need to com­pete glob­ally. But it hasn’t been do­ing so. Amer­i­can stu­dents still score poorly com­pared to stu­dents from other coun­tries, es­pe­cially in math and science. The Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress shows 18 per­cent of fourth­graders and 29 per­cent of eighth­graders scored “be­low ba­sic” in math­e­mat­ics last year.

And far too many stu­dents drop out. At least 1 in 4 quits high school. Among mi­nor­ity chil­dren, the pic­ture is even bleaker. In 2002, only 56 per­cent of black and 52 per­cent of His­panic stu­dents grad­u­ated, com­pared to 78 per­cent of white stu­dents.

The Cen­sus Bureau has found that a full-time em­ployee with a col­lege de­gree will earn more than $2 mil­lion over a life­time. One with only a high-school diploma will earn half as much, while a dropout, ob­vi­ously, will earn even less. More omi­nously, an in­de­pen­dent study found dropouts die an av­er­age of nine years sooner than grad­u­ates.

Our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem is a na­tional prob­lem — but one that calls for lo­cal so­lu­tions. One approach is to pro­vide school choice.

The Dis­trict of Columbia and 13 states have choice pro­grams, and as many as 150,000 chil­dren will use pub­licly funded schol­ar­ships to at­tend private school this year. Re­search shows the pro­grams are help­ing stu­dents.

They’re pop­u­lar, too. School choice gets par­ents in­volved, and par­ents are hap­pier with their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion when they can choose their schools. Re­searchers also have found stu­dents who have moved to private schools get bet­ter grades.

And be­cause the cost of a private school schol­ar­ship is al­most al­ways less than what states in­vest per stu­dent in pub­lic schools, the school the stu­dent leaves has more money to spend on its re­main­ing pupils, who end up in smaller classes. That, plus the com­pe­ti­tion for stu­dents, has driven many lo­cal schools to im­prove.

Ac­count­abil­ity mat­ters as well. Con­sider Florida, where law­mak­ers cre­ated an in­no­va­tive test­ing model to make sure stu­dents were learn­ing, and also to help stu­dents es­cape fail­ing schools. The re­sults are in: Florida’s pub­lic-school stu­dents have demon­strated sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment on fed­eral read­ing and math ex­ams com­pared to stu­dents na­tion­ally.

We also know what doesn’t work: Fed­eral man­dates such as No Child Left Be­hind. That law re­quired states to test stu­dents, but it ends up giv­ing states an in­cen­tive to “dumb down” their tests to main­tain fed­eral fund­ing.

A 2006 study by Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia re­searchers found the gap be­tween state and fed­eral pro­fi­ciency scores had in­creased in 10 of 12 states ex­am­ined since NCLB was en­acted. It’s bet­ter to sim­ply let states pro­vide the fund­ing and hold them­selves ac­count­able.

The Dis­trict of Columbia and 13 states are demon­strat­ing the value of our fed­eral sys­tem, where we ex­per­i­ment at the state level and then pick the best for our na­tion.

We have big prob­lems in our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. But we’ll solve them from the bot­tom up, not the top down.

It’s time to slash the reg­u­la­tion and start cre­at­ing the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem our stu­dents de­serve.

Ed Feul­ner is pres­i­dent of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion (her­itage.org).

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