Commentary

The Education Congress

By Stephen Moore
January 16, 1997

In Bill Clinton, it’s now obvious that we have another “education president” on our hands. Our children simply can’t afford many more of them.

Clinton is right about one thing: there is probably no greater single threat to the American dream than the inferior education the public school monopoly is providing our children. Almost every study on education quality in the last 15 years confirms what Americans have come to know is true: our schools deserve failing grades. The 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, by the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned that the “educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” Today, in most of our inner-city schools, mediocrity is something to strive for.

High percentages of our high school graduates do not know what the Federalist Papers are, do not know what 9 percent of 100 is, cannot say within 50 years when the U.S. Civil War was fought, cannot figure out a bus schedule. Seventy percent of Americans think that the quality of education is worse than it used to be — and they’re probably right.

Bill Clinton has defined his commitment to education in the traditional liberal fashion: by his willingness to throw money at the problem. But before there was such a thing as a U.S. Department of Education spending $30 billion a year, America generally had good, and in many cases superb, public schools. The public school systems in inner cities such as those of New York, Chicago and Washington are worse today than they were before there was a Secretary Alexander, or Bennett or Riley and 10,000 other Education Department workers in Washington. Where is there any tangible evidence that inner-city children have benefited from the $350 billion in federal money that has already been thrown at the schools over the past 20 years?

Perhaps what is needed is an “education Congress.” This year the House and Senate got off to a good start by proposing to cut the budget for most of the failed federal elementary and secondary education programs. To return our schools to the level of achievement that was common 30 and 40 years ago, removing the federal role altogether is the single most sensible proposal. But if, for political reasons, the federal dollars cannot be terminated, Congress should reorient the debate over school reform by offering any or all the following proposals.

Option 1: Enact a Pell grant program for the neediest parents of elementary and secondary school children.

The federal government now provides about $10 billion a year in aid to elementary and secondary schools. The programs should be terminated and the money given in the form of $2,000 grants to parents of 5 million school-aged children. Those grants should be allocated to parents with the lowest incomes first. The parents could then redeem the grants at any public or private school of their choice. For private schools with tuition costs of more than $2,000 a year, the parents could supplement the voucher with their own funds or private scholarships.

Especially for inner-city parents, the voucher could be a godsend. The well-respected Rand Corporation recently compared the achievement of students in the public and Catholic schools of New York. It found that for about $2,000 less per student than the public schools spend, the New York City Catholic schools produce kids who, on average, perform one grade higher than their counterparts in the public schools and have SAT scores that are 170 points higher — even when socio-economic backgrounds and other potential explanatory factors are controlled for.

The GI bill, government scholarship programs, student loans, and Pell grants have long allowed full choice at the college level — including religious schools. Thanks to the healthy forces of competition, America has the best university system in the world. And many of the top colleges — the University of Chicago and Columbia University, for example — are located in inner cities. Why not adopt the same model for our elementary and high schools?

Option 2: Establish pilot grant programs in the worst 100 school districts in America.

Why not take the 100 worst performing public school districts in America and give $3,000 education grants to the parents of kids trapped in those schools? Under such a program, Congress could say to the low-income parents in those districts: here, we are giving you a $3,000 grant that you can use to send your child to any public or private school you wish. We think you can spend this money more wisely than Washington can. Would anyone disagree?

Option 3: Allow families to opt out of schools that are beset with guns and violence.

Why not start immediately by offering parents who are forced to send their kids to a public school where a child has been injured with a gun, or where there is a well-founded fear of violence, a grant to pull their kids out from under the cloud of terror? A recent national report found that there is an “epidemic of violence” in many inner-city schools. Congress should announce that it’s unfair to force parents to send their children to schools that cause them to worry each day about whether the kids were assaulted, rather than about how they did on their last test.

All of these proposals will, of course, invite hostility from the education establishment in Washington. But a genuine education Congress must reject the conventional school reform agenda of Bill Clinton, which has mightily benefited liberal constituencies (the educrats) but not the real victims of schools that don’t teach: inner-city families. America’s schools need an “education Congress,” not another “education establishment president.”

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.