We need school reform debated with the same intensity as health care reform

We live in two worlds simultaneously. In one world, citizens are apathetic about the poor quality of the government-run school system, while in the other world, they are up in arms regarding the proposed government take-over of health care. In one world, most people acknowledge that our government-run schools are seriously underperforming, in the other world – few are able to resist the temptation to pretend their community’s schools are different.

The views of one business mogul and Democratic Party donor was recently summarized in a Wall Street Journal article:

“For at least the past 30 years, American education has remained stagnant as other countries have moved ahead… One of the biggest problems, he believes, is the apathy of American public when it comes to education. ‘Perception lags reality,’ he explains, ‘and their perception is what America used to be, not where we are now.'”

That business mogul is a big proponent of charter schools, but it’s going to take more than that to bring about the kind of reforms that are needed. Joe Bast and Herbert Walberg wrote the following in their book “Put Parents Back in Charge!“:

“Many people believe voucher supporters have won the intellectual debate but are losing the political battle. Academic research shows vouchers improve the quality of schools: Parents are more satisfied and students learn more. Surveys show a majority of parents favor vouchers, and most minority parents see vouchers as a way to escape the country’s worst public schools…

Why are vouchers struggling politically if we know choice works and a majority of voters support vouchers? Because vouchers would change the way schools are financed and organized in the U.S. more dramatically than any reform of the past century. Many individuals and groups have a vested interest in keeping the current system just the way it is.

Vouchers threaten the job security of teacher union leaders, superintendents, and other public school administrators by making it easier for parents to hold them accountable for results. Consequently, many teacher union leaders and public school officials are mortally afraid of vouchers. They have already spent millions of dollars raised through union dues opposing vouchers, and they plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more in the next few years.”

What are the failures of the government run school system that vouchers are designed to fix? Bast and Walberg present several examples:

  • “An 18-nation literacy survey of recent graduates showed six of every 10 U.S. high school graduates failed to read well enough ‘to cope adequately with the complex demands of everyday life.'”
  • “They had the worst achievement rate among the countries surveyed. U.S. secondary schools recently ranked last in mathematics attainment and second to last in science.”
  • “Student achievement in the U.S. has stagnated or declined even though spending has risen considerably. Adjusted for inflation, per pupil spending is four times what it was 30 years ago. Spending on government schools has grown much faster than the incomes of those whose taxes finance them.”
  • “The failure of U.S. schools can increasingly be seen in the workforce. American businesses lose between $25 and $30 billion a year because of the weak reading and writing skills of their workers. By 2001, U.S. companies were spending $7 billion a year on overseas outsourcing for software development. Because of skill shortages, many low- and high-technology jobs, such as data processing and computer programming, are increasingly exported to other countries, most notably India and Ireland.”

Bast and Walberg write that it’s only the government schools that are failing:

“Private school students routinely outscore their government school counterparts on standardized tests… Private schools outperform government schools even when the wealth, education, and motivation of parents are taken into account…

Private schools not only outperform government schools academically, they are also twice as productive: They get twice as much bang for the buck.”

Many people have heard the attempts to discredit this data. Bast and Walberg answer all the most popular attacks:

“Critics of private schools often contend differences in parental motivation distort such comparisons. Parents who choose private schools, they say, are probably more actively involved in other aspects of their children’s education, so their children would tend to be high achievers even if they had remained in government schools.

We think this objection is logically flawed, because it assumes the decision to be actively involved in the education of one’s children is independent from what schools do to encourage or discourage such involvement.

A good school promotes parental involvement by providing greater access to teachers and administrators and by being more responsive to parents’ advice and expressions of concern.

Many government schools erect bureaucratic barriers to such parental involvement. Private schools tend to produce better academic results, in other words, because they tend to create motivated parents, not because they are chosen by motivated parents.”

Americans are realizing that when it comes to the health care debate, facts matter. If you want to understand once and for all that the cliché “it’s for the children” is malarkey, read the Bast/Walberg book. Click here to download or purchase it – and here to support the excellent work of the Heartland Institute.

Up next: Competition and the role of incentives.