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“Winning the Future” Requires Real Choice

A Commentary By Howard Rich

Thursday, February 03, 2011

In his State of the Union address last week, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that America’s “free enterprise system is what drives innovation.” He also said that if America is to “win the future,” then it must first “win the race to educate our kids.”

Mr. Obama is correct on both points – just as he was correct in acknowledging that “too many schools” in our country are falling behind in this race.

According to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), 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) – the subjects which form the basis of our nation’s innovative capacity.

This slippage – which Mr. Obama is hoping to mitigate with increased government funding – will only widen the “innovation gap” that exists between 21st Century America and the rest of the industrialized world.

According to a 2009 report published by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, America ranked sixth among the world’s top 40 industrialized nations in overall “innovative competitiveness.” However, our nation ranked dead last among these countries with respect to its “rate of change in innovation capacity.”

“Do the math,” as the expression goes.

As with our government’s ongoing fiscal recklessness, this “innovation stagnation” threatens the very survival of our Republic. Yet as America’s competitive position has steadily deteriorated, our political leaders have continued to ignore free market solutions. Instead, they have chosen to saddle future generations with record debt – while simultaneously impeding their ability to pay all those borrowed trillions back.

Now the role that government plays in every aspect of our economy – as well as the role government plays in preparing future generations of Americans to compete in that economy – must be fundamentally reexamined.

“The question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed,” Mr. Obama said in his address.

That is the question. Yet in imploring us to meet this challenge, Mr. Obama is once again demonstrating the hollowness of his rhetoric.

For example, if Mr. Obama truly believes that free enterprise “drives innovation” in our economy, then why has he dramatically expanded government control over our financial markets? Or pushed a government takeover of the health care industry? Or used multi-billion dollar bailouts to speculatively pick winners and losers in the marketplace?

And if Mr. Obama truly believes in providing “what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed,” then why did he pull the plug on a successful school choice program in Washington, D.C.?

According to a U.S. Department of Education report released last summer, the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program has “increased graduation rates by 21 percentage points” among students who took advantage of these scholarships – at a little more than half the cost of public school tuition.

Two weeks ago, researchers at the University of Minnesota released a report showing that students in Milwaukee’s successful school choice program “have graduation rates that are 18 percent higher than those of students in Milwaukee Public Schools” – at less than half the cost of public school tuition.

Meanwhile a study released by Northwestern University just last week found that public schools in the state of Florida – where a thriving  tax credit and scholarship program was recently expanded – have “responded to the increased threat of losing students” by dramatically improving their performance.

“The (public school) gains occur immediately,” the study found, and “appear to be much more pronounced in the schools most at risk to lose students.”

Better academic results, dramatic savings and improved public school performance– all as a result of free enterprise. Exactly what part of that equation does Mr. Obama find objectionable?

The day after Mr. Obama’s speech, House Speaker John Boehner unveiled legislation that would reinstate Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“President Obama spoke of the vital role education plays in making our nation competitive,” Mr. Boehner said. “We need to start by making America’s education system itself more competitive.”

Indeed we do. America has what it takes to “win the future.” In fact, a study released last month by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that Americans aged 16-25 “possess many characteristics necessary to become inventors, such as creativity, interest in science and math … (and the) desire to develop altruistic inventions.”

What these young minds need now is for their government to get out of the way.

The author 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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