Hostages to the Education Establishment

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The United States is the only country where the longer students stay in school, the worse they do in math and science in comparison with students in other countries. In the fourth grade, American students do well. By the eighth grade their performance is flagging. And by their last year of high school they outperform only students in Cyprus and South Africa, according to the recently released results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

The solution, according to Education Secretary Richard Riley and President Clinton: throw more money at the problem. The president wants $60 million in federal money to improve math teaching. Riley wants to train more high school math and science teachers.

Have we heard this before?

One definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over -- and expecting different results. It appears that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is also an apt description of our national education policy. Nobody in Washington is proposing anything different. We'll keep doing things the same way, except that we'll spend more money and do more of it -- and things will improve?

Let's go back 15 years -- to 1983, when the Commission on Excellence in Education, appointed by the Education Secretary, reported that the United States was "a nation at risk" and said educational reform was "imperative."

Among other things, that report made international comparisons on 19 academic tests and found that American students were never first or second, and on seven tests ranked last among industrialized nations.

After the report, Terrell Bell, the Education Secretary at that time, responded by saying the Reagan administration was "submitting an education budget that would be the largest in history, if enacted." In other words, throwing more money at the problem.

Would anybody like to explain how our schools have reformed since 1983? There have been changes here and there, but achievement test and college aptitude test scores have continued to decline, and the number of remedial classes offered by the colleges has continued to increase. The longer our children stay in school, the worse they do compared to those in other nations.

What is particularly sad about this situation is that it doesn't have to be that way. There is a solution, but the education establishment doesn't want to recognize it. The solution, espoused in this column in the past, is to end the public school monopoly, give parents and children true school choice and let competition emerge.

By coincidence, just after the science and math comparisons were released, a new study from the National Center for Policy Analysis suggested a sort of compromise approach that would allow more students to attend private schools -- and at the same time allow an increase in spending on the students remaining in public schools. The solution is an old idea: tax credits.

The author of the study, Linda Morrison, an NCPA Senior Fellow and a public policy consultant based in Newtown, Pa., proposes that a parent or any other taxpayer who pays a child's tuition to a nongovernment school receive a tax credit of, say, $1,000 deducted from state and local taxes in most cases.

Each dollar of tax credit claimed would be paid for by a dollar reduction in the budget of the school district in which the children attending nongovernment schools live. For every pupil that transferred out, per pupil spending would increase in the district, since the $1,000 revenue lost would be far less than is being spent in the classroom now. On average, public schools in America spend $6,857 per pupil, so the district would gain $5,857 for each student that left.

The tax credit approach has several points to recommend it. It makes private schools more accessible to more families. It makes more money available for those remaining in the government schools. Since people would be spending their own money before it ever went to the government, the tax credit approach removes constitutional questions about tax money going to religious schools and it keeps private schools free of additional government interference.

The education establishment will be just as opposed to tax credits as it is to vouchers. But its stranglehold on elementary and secondary education is weakening, with six out of 10 parents of public school children saying they would send their children to private schools if they could afford it. The question is how quickly we can have true school choice, to avoid waking up in another 15 years to find a nation still in crisis.