Failing Public Schools Cost Us All

Carrie Lukas
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Posted: Dec 22, 2009 12:01 AM

Everyone knows our public schools aren't what they should be. The nation spends more than $500 billion per year on K-12 education. That's much more than other countries – yet we still rank in the middle on international tests measuring the educational performance.

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Many parents take comfort, assuming that their local schools are better than the average. They know there are places where the public schools are little more than expensive, dangerous, holding pens in which little education occurs. They think of Detroit, where only about a quarter of high schoolers will receive a diploma. They think of Baltimore City, where little more than a third of students are expected to graduate high school. And they think of Washington D.C., which spends more than $14,000 per year per student but produces only 15% of students who are proficient in reading and math. Parents figure those places weigh down the U.S.'s performance on those worldwide tests; other Americans need to worry about education reform, but not them.

Certainly, communities with the worst schools have the most to gain from education reform. Yet we are all affected by the outcomes of our nation's education system. Most people understand intuitively that we are better off with a more educated populace since educated people are less likely to commit crimes and can better contribute to their communities.

It makes sense that our country would be better off if all of our citizens were better prepared to contribute and compete in today's global, knowledge-based economy. But this is too often lost in our discussions about education policy, which tends to be an emotional subject. Education is supposed to be a stepping stone to a successful life. By perpetuating an inadequate system, we let down a generation of children. Kids who may have grown up to be scientists, professors, doctors, or authors will be forced to settle for more modest aspirations as they fail to acquire needed skills while passing through our lousy schools.

But education isn't just a moral imperative: it’s an urgent national priority that is critical to long term growth and prosperity. Few seem to comprehend that we are actually paying a price in dollars and cents because of the failures of these school systems. The management consulting firm McKinsey and Company looked at the effects of our failure to provide a quality education in order to estimate its impact on the economy. They compared it to a “permanent national recession” that made our country hundreds of billions of dollars poorer each year. Imagining how much better off we would be if our education system achieved the superior results of other countries, analysts concluded that “if the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better-performing nations such as Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher.” That's between $4,300 and $7,600 per person.

Sadly, the media tends to miss the benefits that will accrue to communities and individuals with better education. For example, the press all but ignored the recent debate about the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. This program, launched in 2004, helped over 1700 students from low-income families in Washington D.C. to attend schools of their parents' choice. Last year, a U.S. Department of Education study proved that this program was working: test scores showed that students using vouchers were performing two years ahead of their public school peers on standardized reading tests. These are incredibly powerful results for a modest investment. In fact, the program actually saved taxpayers money, as tuition at the average private school attended by a scholarship recipient was just $6,600 – a fraction of what is currently being spent per pupil in D.C. dysfunctional public schools.

Yet Congress moved to defund this program, condemning future low-income D.C. students to the public school system that we know fails so many. The President and the Secretary of Education had promised to pursue “whatever works” when it comes to education reform. However, it is increasingly clear that was just empty rhetoric. The all-powerful teachers unions loathe any program that helps kids exit the public schools, and Democratic leaders seem to have calculated that teachers unions’ interests are more important than the future of those students.

Politically, Congress’ decision probably made sense. After all, the teachers unions give loads of money to politicians in order to maintain the status quo. Clearly, the poor families receiving opportunity scholarships in Washington D.C. don't. And, for the most part, those around the country—even those who are sympathetic to the cause of education reform and school choice—don't see a debate about a program out in the nation's capitol as their fight.

But it should be all of our fights.

A dynamic, effective education system is in everyone's self-interest. Our public schools are a drag on the economy, bringing everyone down. We are poorer and have lower standard of living because we have allowed this problem to persist. Americans need to fight for meaningful reforms and against those who cling to the dysfunctional status quo. For a stronger nation, education reform should be everyone's cause.