Bill Clinton wants to improve American education, or so he says. And the public seems to believe him.
In a recent poll, 38 percent of people said they preferred his program, while only 26 percent backed that of the Republican Party. But this isn't surprising, since only the president is talking about the issue; as usual, the GOP is wandering around headless.
The "national crusade" called for by Clinton would seem warranted by the failure of the public school system. Average SAT scores dropped from 980 to 899 between 1963 and 1992, a period during which real, per pupil spending rose 160 percent. This can't be explained by the increase in the number of kids taking the test: Over the past 20 years the number of top scorers on the SAT has dropped in half.
Nothing changed during the 1990s despite even more money and a panoply of "reforms." The 1994 National Assessment of Education Progress test found that 36 percent of 4th graders, 39 percent of 8th graders and 57 percent of 12th graders failed to meet basic history standards. The results in major American cities are even worse. In Washington, D.C., for instance, scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills dropped again last year. International comparisons also tell an abysmal story, with American students scoring below foreign kids in almost every subject.
Public education survives only because parents have acquiesced to mediocrity. But while suburban schools have problems, city schools are in crisis. The Carnegie Foundation declared in 1988: "The failure to educate adequately urban children is a shortcoming of such magnitude that many people have simply written off city schools as little more than human storehouses to keep young people off the streets."
Half of urban kids typically fail to graduate. This isn't bad compared to graduation rates at the start of the century, explains the Clinton Department of Education, but that is a bizarre standard by which to judge America's schools as we approach the new millennium. Moreover, even students who graduate have learned little: Their diplomas are about as valuable as Czarist bonds.
It is bad enough to be turning out illiterates. It is scandalous to be doing so when the rest of economy is being transformed by new technologies. We have gotten used to higher quality for less money, but education is giving us precisely the reverse.
The president's answer is to stop politics "at the classroom door." That sounds nice, of course, but he remains a loyal defender of today's highly politicized system. In fact, the National Education Association has few closer friends than the president.
And the Clinton administration's reform program is not serious. He wants volunteer tutors to teach kids to read. But isn't that what the public schools are supposed to be doing at a cost of more than $300 billion annually? He wants school uniforms, something best decided by parents and schools. He wants charter schools, but why limit the choice to just another variant of public institution?
Finally, the president wants more money. This is, of course, the educational establishment's standard mantra. Yet real spending per pupil has risen 40 percent a decade since World War II; the quality of education has spiraled down during the same period. Private schools cost about half as much as public ones and achieve better results. Two recent studies have found that children in private Milwaukee schools, funded through a voucher program, do better than those in public institutions. Surveys also suggest that parochial schools more effectively teach comparably disadvantaged student populations.
Even these results understate the advantage of private education, since the existing system remains a virtual public monopoly. One should not expect dramatic improvements from the very limited private educational outposts that currently exist.
A truly competitive system would reward innovation and success.
In contrast, the public schools are doomed to mediocrity. Admits Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers: "It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."
What we need, then, is to open up the education market.
We've done that with universities. In fact, the administration wants to create a tax benefit for attendance at private universities. If markets are good for colleges, then why not for elementary and secondary schools?
Indeed, almost everyone who resists educational choice for the poor exercises it for themselves. The president and nearly half of the members of Congress send their children to private schools. Members of city school boards usually send their children to private institutions. Public school teachers are four times as likely as other parents with comparable incomes to send their children to private schools.
Supporters of public schools talk about educational equity, but there is none today. If the President wants his latest crusade to succeed, he must decide that America's children are more important than his political supporters.