Jonah Goldberg

Here's a good question for you: Why have public schools at all?

OK, cue the marching music. We need public schools because blah blah blah and yada yada yada. We could say blah is common culture and yada is the government's interest in promoting the general welfare. Or that children are the future. And a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Because we can't leave any child behind.

The problem with all these bromides is that they leave out the simple fact that one of the surest ways to leave a kid "behind" is to hand him over to the government. Americans want universal education, just as they want universally safe food. But nobody believes that the government should run nearly all of the restaurants, farms and supermarkets. Why should it run the vast majority of the schools - particularly when it gets terrible results?

Consider Washington, home of the nation's most devoted government-lovers and, ironically, the city with arguably the worst public schools in the country. Out of the 100 largest school districts, according to the Washington Post, D.C. ranks third in spending for each pupil ($12,979) but last in spending on instruction. Fifty-six cents out of every dollar go to administrators who, it's no secret, do a miserable job administrating, even though D.C. schools have been in a state of "reform" for nearly 40 years.

In a blistering series, the Post has documented how badly the bureaucrats have run public education. More than half of the District of Columbia's teenage kids spend their days in "persistently dangerous" schools, with an average of nine violent incidents a day in a system with 135 schools. "Principals reporting dangerous conditions or urgently needed repairs in their buildings wait, on average, 379 days ... for the problems to be fixed," according to the Post. But hey, at least the kids are getting a lousy education. A mere 19 schools managed to get "proficient" scores or better for a majority of students on the district's Comprehensive Assessment Test.

A standard response to such criticisms is to say we don't spend enough on public education. But if money were the solution, wouldn't the district, which spends nearly $13,000 on every kid, rank near the top? If you think more money will fix the schools, make your checks out to "cash" and send them to me.

Private, parochial and charter schools get better results. Parents know this. Applications for vouchers in the district dwarf the available supply, and home schooling has exploded.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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