April 14, 2008

April 14, 2008 | Commentary on Education

An Unexpected Ally?

Now that the Eliot Spitzer administration is behind us, perhaps we can focus our attention again on tackling the most pressing issues facing New Yorkers. Let's hope education leads the list.

Recent data from Department of Education reveals that many of our public schools are failing to provide our children with a quality education. Many hope the change in Albany will bring some needed change into the system -- might newly-inaugurated Governor David Patterson prove to be an unexpected ally of school-choice?

In New York, taxpayers spend more than $14,000 on every child in public school each year. That's $5,000 more than the national average.

But the state doesn't get much bang for the bucks. Years of education budget increases have failed to deliver real improvement. Mediocre test scores, poor retention rates and increasingly alarming drop out rates ought to compel even the staunchest supporters of the status quo to reconsider their approach. Unfortunately, when education does take center stage in public policy debates, most are content to make small tweaks instead of really dealing with this important issue.

According to a 2006 USA Today article, New York had the dishonorable distinction of having the third-lowest graduation rate among our country's big cities. Only 39 percent of city students graduate. (In case you are wondering, only Detroit and Baltimore had lower graduation rates.) And as if these numbers weren't scary enough, minority Americans are a disproportionate number of public school attendees.

Instead of throwing even more money at education, what if lower-income New York families were afforded the same opportunity that wealthy New York families have in deciding which school to send their children? By empowering families with this important freedom, children would not be trapped in failing public schools and schools would be encouraged to improve to keep attracting students.

The truth is that we don't have to wonder if taking this approach would result in higher test scores because we can look to places such as Florida that have enacted modest, but important reforms, to increase school choice. Over the past decade, minority students in Florida have made dramatic gains on reading and test scores, thanks to aggressive education reform policies that have been implemented with bipartisan support.

 New York needs the same kinds of bold reforms. Fortunately, there is some reason for hope: Gov. Patterson has demonstrated a willingness to step outside the boundaries of liberal orthodoxy when looking at education.

In education circles, he's known as realist and a pragmatist who sympathizes with the need to give parents the power to choose the best school for their children. And yet, there are instances when he has reverted to siding with the Left to prevent the expansion of school choice, such as when he voted against a 1998 New York Charter school bill.

It's unlikely Patterson could have imagined that in 2008 he'd become the 55th Governor of one of the biggest and most important states in the country. Now that destiny has thrust him into the state's highest office, Gov. Patterson needs to act in the best interest of the state and support bold education reform that empower parents to choose the best school for their children. New Yorkers should demand nothing less.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at the Heritage Foundation. www.heritage.org.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
Accounting