June 1 2009
Vicki E. Alger
Twenty-six years ago this May, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. It warned that "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."
Today, not much has changed. A new study from McKinsey & Co. calls the achievement gaps between American students and their international peers, along with achievement gaps among low-income, Hispanic and African-American students, "the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession." The study estimates the cost of not closing those achievement gaps to the U.S. Gross domestic product ranges from $310 billion up to $2.3 trillion -- which works out to about $7,500 per person.
Among the report's most striking findings is that "lagging achievement in the United States is not merely an issue for poor children attending schools in poor neighborhoods; instead, it affects most children in most schools."
Yet there is reason for optimism: Some states are making strides in addressing the education system's shortcomings and providing parents with alternatives. Consider what's been happening in Florida.
The Florida House and Senate just voted to expand its tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students with overwhelming, bipartisan support. Under the program, Florida businesses earn a tax credit, dollar-for-dollar, for up to 75 percent of their state tax liability for donations to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations.
Since the program's enactment in 2001, nearly 52,000 scholarships have been awarded. With nearly two-thirds of those scholarships going to Hispanic and African-American students, it's no wonder there was unanimous support in the Florida House for the expansion from the Hispanic caucus and more than two-thirds of Florida's African-American caucus.
The results speak for themselves. In a foreward for another report, "Demography Is Not Destiny," former Gov. Jeb Bush wrote, "A decade ago, Florida schools were failing and ranked near the bottom in nearly every national survey. More than half of the state's public school students were not reading or performing math at grade level. Mediocrity was tolerated, and excuses were more common than accountability. Back then, schools tracked library books better than students' progress, and poor performance in schools produced a round-robin of blame."
No-nonsense accountability from the top down in the form of high standards, rigorous testing and sensible teacher hiring and pay practices, combined with bottom-up accountability from parental choice made all the difference. Compare the reading performance of Florida fourth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP or the Nation's Report Card, to a state like California, which ranks 48th in student achievement.
Today, the average Florida Hispanic student's fourth-grade reading score -- on a test conducted in English -- is now higher than the overall scores of all fourth-graders in 15 states, including California. Low-income, Hispanic fourth-graders also outscore all fourth-graders in California and many of those states. African-American fourth-graders in the Sunshine State score higher than average for all students in Louisiana and Mississippi.
While Florida has been leading the way in making comprehensive reforms to the education system, other places are fighting such initiatives and focus on protecting the status quo. The U.S. Senate, for example, recently defeated an amendment that would have preserved the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which enables low-income public-school students to attend private schools.
The official evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program found that in reading, the average D.C. Scholarship student was four months ahead of the average public-school student. This, even though the average per-pupil expenditure is more than $26,000 at D.C. public schools, or more than four times the average scholarship amount of $6,000. It even exceeds the average scholarship family's annual income of $23,000.
So if you could have used an extra $7,500 last year, don't blame Florida. Blame elected officials in places like D.C. who think they and the public-school establishment know what's best for other people's children and the economy.
Vicki Murray is an Independent Women's Forum Visiting Fellow and the associate director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, Calif.