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Real Academic Accountability Requires Real Choices

A Commentary By Howard Rich

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

With fresh data showing that students in the United States are falling further behind their international peers, a commitment to universal parental choice at all levels of government is needed now more than ever.

Without putting too fine a point on it, our nation’s sustained competitiveness and long-term economic survival hang in the balance.

According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) –released to considerable hand-wringing in Washington, D.C. last week – America’s reading scores have slipped by four points over the last nine years. Our fifteen-year-old students now trail their counterparts in Shanghai by 56 points – with even larger gaps existing in science (73 points) and mathematics (113 points).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called these disappointing results a “wake-up call,” adding that “I think we have to invest in reform, not in the status quo.”

He’s right. But Duncan’s boss – President Barack Obama – has made it clear that he categorically rejects the one reform that America has yet to try. And not only does Obama oppose expanding parental choice, last year he shut down Washington D.C.’s limited, means-tested program – a decision that prompted USA Today to rethink its previous position on this important issue.

“By federal measures, students at 12,978 U.S. schools are failing to improve adequately — 13% of the total,” USA Today wrote last May. “Giving them another option, by vouchers or by other means, provides an escape route and pressures public schools to improve.”

American politicians have tried to fix our nation’s chronic academic woes with more taxpayer money – but those efforts have failed.

“Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending increased 42 percent between 1989 and 2007, from $7,911 to $11,233 per pupil,” a recent Rockefeller Institute study noted. And thanks to Obama’s bureaucratic bailouts, the recent recession hasn’t slowed this explosive growth. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a record $1.1 trillion was spent on education funding during the 2009-10 school year.

Politicians have also tried adding new layers of bureaucracy – including funding federally-administered education grants beginning in 1965 and creating the 5,000-employee U.S. Department of Education in 1980 to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.”

While these efforts have similarly failed to accomplish their objectives, they have succeeded in extending the reach of the federal government far beyond its intended scope – forcing taxpayers to pick up a whopping $1.4 trillion (and counting) tab.

In 1990-91, the federal share of total K-12 spending in the United States was just 5.7 percent. That total has nearly doubled over the intervening two decades to 10.5 percent.

Part of this ever-expanding taxpayer obligation includes new “accountability” measures like President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Yet instead of erasing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” – and improving test scores – these costly exams have merely created another set of numbers to be manipulated and another layer of bureaucracy to be subsidized.

In their latest attempt at satisfying increasingly impatient parents, politicians have turned to “Choice in Name Only,” or choice within the government-run system. A handful of municipalities – but no states – have also passed limited, means-tested choice programs.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been halfhearted at best – and the limited availability of options has also limited the constituencies needed to protect them from bureaucratic poaching. During the last school year only 62,000 students nationwide were given academic scholarships. Meanwhile, 1.4 million students attended charter schools.

To put those numbers in perspective, 57 million students are currently enrolled in public schools.

Why should we try universal choice? Because to be perfectly blunt we’ve tried everything else – and nothing has worked. Also, aside from the perpetual demonization of choice by those who have a vested financial interest in preserving our nation’s failed status quo – why shouldn’t we try it?

Needless to say the stakes are high. For example, a recent study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development  (OECD) and Stanford University researchers found that if America could boost its average PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years, it would  result in $41 trillion worth of economic benefits for the generation of Americans born in 2010.

That’s the sort of rising tide that lifts all ships – and could lift this nation to its former glory assuming our leaders summon the courage to try something new.

Let’s hope they hurry, because the world clearly isn’t waiting.

Howard Rich is chairman of Americans for Limited Government.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.                                                

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