May 1, 2008

May 1, 2008 | Commentary on Education

Examining a 'Nation at Risk'

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 fourth-graders and 29 percent of eighth-graders 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

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Education

First appeared in Washington Times