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April 8, 2005

Don't Change The Subject on School Choice

By

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 had it.

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 college-entrance exam.

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 quo.

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 scholarship-granting organizations.

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 all boats."

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 broken system.

Jonathan Butcher is a researcher in education at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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