Commentary: School Reform Must Foster Competition

Published May 1, 2007

If nothing else, the U.S. Department of Education proved earlier this year it can collect and report telling statistics about the condition of K-12 schooling.

What’s seriously at question is the government’s effectiveness in acting on such data to reform education.

Contradictory Findings

The Department of Education released two reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that were eye-opening when placed side by side.

One report found from studying transcripts that high school graduates in 2005 earned more credits, got higher grades, and took more challenging courses than did their counterparts 15 years ago.

Unfortunately, the second report showed reading scores of high school seniors in 2005 had declined significantly since the early 1990s. Only 35 percent were proficient readers, down five points from 1992.

As for math, NAEP launched a new test in 2005, the results of which could not be compared fairly to previous years. However, it was scarcely encouraging that only 23 percent scored at the proficient level on the new math test.

Lagging Achievement

The juxtaposition of these results–ever-higher grades for ever-less performance–helps explain why U.S. students lead the world in self-esteem while lagging in actual achievement.

A Brookings Institution study last fall found U.S. eighth-graders were six times likelier to express confidence in their math skills than were Korean eighth-graders, but Koreans’ math scores were far higher.

The lack of academic improvement over the past 15 years raises serious questions about the federal role in education reform as Congress begins considering reauthorization of the five-year-old No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Some Washington insiders are calling for imposing tighter NCLB controls on high schools, or even setting national standards.

That is shortsighted because federal involvement in K-12 schooling has been expanding steadily since passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) 42 years ago (NCLB is merely the latest version of ESEA), and the return on the billions already spent has been scant.

Different Approach

To be sure, some tinkering with NCLB could be useful. An Aspen Institute commission is advocating assessing teachers according to the academic gains they help their students achieve, rather than their amassing of education credentials.

Unfortunately, teacher unions already are lining up to derail that sensible “value-added” proposal.

Therein lies the problem for any reform that relies on the cooperation of a change-averse public school establishment.

Rather than placing all bets on compliance with NCLB, Washington policymakers ought to adopt incentives that would enable parents to find good private schools for their children and thereby exert competitive pressures on public schools to improve.

To be most effective, school choice should be for all, not just for selected categories of need.

Good Start

A good starting point is Utah’s universal voucher program, signed into law February 12 by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R).

Under the program, virtually all Utah families will be eligible for a means-tested voucher worth between $500 and $3,000 per child to use at a qualifying private school. That will help empower parents as consumers of education no longer at the mercy of an education establishment.

Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman long championed the universal voucher as a means of sparking in education the competition that has driven innovations in many sectors of American life.

The Utah law is imperfect as a catalyst because of a “mitigation” provision that pays public school districts for up to five years for any students they lose to vouchers. However, it is one significant step toward choice for all.

State-Level Choice

Research by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found competition motivated Milwaukee public schools to improve, even though vouchers there are available only to low-income families. A choice system such as Utah’s that empowers middle-income families as well could have even more dramatic impact.

With its adoption in 2002, NCLB gave parents the options of private tutoring or public school choice when their children were stuck in failing schools. However, school bureaucrats have dragged their feet in implementation, which is likely to be the fate of any worthy reform tacked onto NCLB.

Washington shouldn’t try to impose Utah-style choice nationally, but it could do this: Allow states to opt out of NCLB and adopt genuine reforms such as universal choice. Under such a plan, as long as a state could show academic results, it would not lose federal aid.

The feds could then concentrate on issuing a Nation’s Report Card, something they recently have done very well.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.