Education follies

Posted: Jan 02, 2004 12:00 AM

Though the news from the education world is gloomy, dismal and sad, I do believe that in 2004 things will improve. Eventually, in America, when things get bad enough, a reforming impulse pushes through the muck and begins to set things right. The following education follies from 2003 are offered in hopes of goosing that process along.

In October, the mayor of Detroit and the governor of Michigan joined forces to reject a $200 million gift offered by philanthropist Robert Thompson. Thompson proposed to help build 15 small charter high schools in Detroit, whose students consistently score below those of other Michigan residents. But after the Detroit teachers staged a one-day walkout to protest the charter plan, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm scurried away from the deal.

Detroit spends, for the record, more than all but 9 percent of Michigan school districts. Only 3.4 percent of Michigan's districts graduate a smaller proportion of high school students. Detroit students score near the bottom on statewide achievement tests. Only 2.5 percent of Michigan school districts spend more on administrative costs than does Detroit. The city also boasts teacher salaries near the very top.

Paul E. Peterson of Harvard reported in 2003 the results of a randomized study examining the effect of school vouchers on African American youngsters in New York. The study began in 1997, when the School Choice Scholarships Foundation offered vouchers to 1,200 New York City public school students in kindergarten through fourth grade. The scholarships were worth $1,400 annually. The students who received the vouchers were similar in every way to those who did not. Eighty percent came from single-parent families. The results were impressive. Students who received vouchers scored one grade level higher in reading and math than students in public school.

The Heritage Foundation prepared a handy table showing how members of Congress exercised school choice for their own children. Among the population at large, about 10 percent send their children to private schools. In the Senate, 46 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats send their kids to private school. But some Republicans and many Democrats have set their faces against vouchers to permit poor children in the District of Columbia to have school choice, too.

Twenty-nine percent of Congressional Black Caucus members and 46 percent of Hispanic Caucus members send their children to private schools. In September 2003, despite vehement opposition from D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and other supporters of the teachers unions, a voucher plan for the District of Columbia squeaked through the House of Representatives.

Florida's "A+" program provides that students in schools performing poorly in two out of four years get a voucher to attend a different public school or a private school. When the Manhattan Institute studied the effect of the program, it found that schools facing the lash of competition made much greater gains than schools permitted to plod on in the old way. A Harvard study of schools in Michigan, Arizona and Wisconsin has found the same thing. Amazing! Competition works better than monopoly. Adam Smith: Call your office.

Opponents of the voucher idea rely primarily on the idea that private school tuitions are completely out of reach for most students' families. This would mean that the wealthiest or luckiest students would be "creamed" from the public schools, leaving the rest of the students mired in even worse conditions.

This argument not only fails to account for the competition effect mentioned above, but it further assumes that the public schools are starved for funds, while private schools are serving sirloin steak on white tablecloths in the lunchroom. In fact, while some famous private schools (like St. Albans, where Al Gore went, or Sidwell Friends, which Chelsea Clinton attended) are extremely expensive, most are not.

The Cato Institute looked at prices of private schools in a number of cities around the country and compared their tuitions with what the government spends on education. In the District of Columbia, for example, the government spends $11,009 per pupil. Forty-five of the District's private schools charged less than that per year, and 39 charged $5,000 or less.

In Houston, annual per-pupil spending by the city and state is $7,098. But 119 of the area's 144 private schools charge less, and 90 percent charged $5,000 or less. In Denver, the government spends $9,919 to educate each pupil per year. Only six of the city's 91 private elementary schools charge that much. The median private tuition is $3,528.

Eventually, common sense will prevail. For the sake of the kids, let's hope it starts in 2004.