April 8, 2005
By Jonathan Butcher
Some opponents of school choice would have you believe
otherwise, but the vast majority of parents want only what's best
for their children.
They don't question the dedication of public-school teachers.
They don't want to shut down the public schools. They don't seek to
create an entitlement for the well heeled.
Ask Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Legislation that he
strongly supports, the aptly named "Put Parents in Charge Act," is
designed to help parents in his state give their children the best
chance possible at a good education. If that can come from public
schools, terrific. But why not give parents
more options? They want bang for their educational buck, and
they want results in the classroom.
These parents have come to realize that the education crisis
plaguing South Carolina and many other states has nothing to do
with federal or local funding.
The federal government spends more on education -- and gets less
for it -- than ever before. Per-student spending in the United
States has doubled in constant dollars since 1971, from $3,931 then
to $7,524 now. The federal contribution to education spending has
doubled in just the last eight years. In fact, the federal
government has doled out so much money for education that last year
a congressional committee found more than $6 billion of it sitting
in state coffers. Federal aid flows in such abundance that some
states haven't even been able to spend it in the two years they've
Yet, despite all this spending, student achievement since the
1970s has remained flat or fallen in every category. Today, 68
percent of America's fourth-graders score at basic or
below-basic levels on national assessments in mathematics (which
means they have partial or no mastery over grade-level material),
and 71 percent of eighth-graders score at these levels.
In South Carolina, it's even worse. Per-student
spending has increased significantly in constant dollars since
1960, from $1,300 then to more than $7,000 now. Yet, in 2003,
according to the American Legislative Exchange Council, South
Carolina ranked 24th out of the 26 states, plus the
District of Columbia, where the SAT is the dominant
Nearly 70 percent of the state's fourth-graders and
73 percent of eighth-graders score at or below basic levels in
mathematics. Only one-fourth of the eighth-graders are considered
to be proficient in math, which means they've demonstrated
competent knowledge of the material. In reading, again, just one in
four fourth- and eighth-graders reach the proficient level.
One would think such numbers would lead concerned citizens to
welcome change. Instead, many of the state's editorial writers have
delivered an inexplicable defense of the static, stumbling status
Gov. Sanford and the sponsors of the legislation have set out a
sensible plan. They're calling for tuition tax credits, which
merely allow parents who see a better option for their children in
private schools to pay the tuition, then deduct part of it from
their taxes. Their plan also calls for tax credits for donations to
Such programs are wiser investments than much current
educational spending because they result in increased achievement
by both the students who transfer to other schools and by those who
remain in their public schools. That's right. According to research
from universities such as Harvard and Stanford and a bevy of think
tanks, including The Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan
Institute, not only do students in choice programs improve at a
faster pace than their peers after transferring, but students at
nearby public schools show improvement as well.
Experts attribute improvement in public schools to reforms those
schools adopt to make their programs more attractive to families
empowered by choice programs. Competition, to use the language of
business, causes improvement. This is why one Harvard researcher
suggests that school-choice programs could be a "tide that lifts
Choice programs, such as the one Gov. Sanford supports, are not
indictments of public school teachers, but they are challenges to
the system. After all, it's the students we should defend, not a
Jonathan Butcher is a researcher in education at The Heritage
Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy
Some opponents of school choice would have you believe otherwise, but the vast majority of parents want only what's best for their children.
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