When two schools meet in a basketball game, the winner is indisputable. One team outscores the other.
The same is true in certain types of academic competition. When students take standardized national tests, students from some schools outscore students from others.
In the most recent round of National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the winners were indeed indisputable. Catholic schools thrashed public schools.
It wasn't close.
"In 2011," says the Department of Education in a report on the NAEP tests, "the average reading score for eighth-graders attending public schools was 19 points lower than the overall score for students attending private schools,and 20 points lower than for students attending Catholic schools specifically."
If the Catholic school in your community beat the public school in basketball by 20 points, partisans of both teams would deem it a rout. If the Catholic school beat the public school by similar margins year after year, people would wonder what was wrong with the public-school basketball program. Were the coaches incompetent? Did they not care about instilling excellence in their teams?
Well, in the Department of Education's national eighth-grade reading test, the Catholic schools not only routed the public schools by 20 points last year, they have made a habit of such routs.
In every round of NAEP reading tests over the past 20 years, Catholic-school eighth-graders have defeated public-school eighth-graders by double-digit margins. The closest the public schools ever got to the Catholic schools was 17 points -- and that was in 1992, long before today's elementary school students were even born.
The Catholic victory margins are not as great in mathematics, but the history of unbroken domination is the same.
"In 2011," says the Department of Education, "the average mathematics score for eighth-graders attending public schools was 13 points lower than the overall score for students attending private schools and 13 points lower than for students attending Catholic schools specifically."
In math, the closest the public schools ever got to beating the Catholics schools was when they lost by only 9 points -- but that was 22 years ago. Since then, the Catholic schools' victory margin in math has gradually grown.
So, what is the matter with public schools? Why can't they compete with Catholic schools in basic academic disciplines like reading and math?
One thing is certain: It isn't a lack of money.
In the 1998-99 school year, according to the Department of Education, U.S. public elementary and secondary schools spent $9,923 per pupil (in inflation-adjusted 2009-2010 dollars). In the 2007-2008 school year, they spent $12,236 per pupil (in 2009-2010 dollars). In just eight years, America's public schools increased average per-pupil spending by $2,313 in inflation-adjusted dollars -- a real increase of 23 percent.
But in that same period, the average public-school eighth-grade reading score virtually flat-lined -- going from 261 (out of a possible 500) in 1998 to 264 in 2011.
The average public-school eighth-grade math score showed slightly more improvement for the additional $2,313 per student. It crawled from 272 (out of 500) in 2000 to 283 last year.
If significantly increasing the money transferred from taxpayers to public school administrators and teachers cannot significantly increase the math and reading scores of the students these administrators and teachers are supposed to serve, what will?
Ideally, organized on a community-by-community basis, all parents of all students would get a voucher equal to the cost of educating a child in the local public school, and the parents would be able to choose, in a free market, exactly where they wanted their child educated.
But, unfortunately, if we did this in today's America -- where the president believes he can order Catholics and Catholic institutions to act against their faith -- people in government would surely use a voucher program as a political weapon to sap the spirit from religious schools and turn them into dismal facsimiles of the failed public schools that the voucher-bearing parents and their children have fled.
The truth is the primary purpose of the average American public school -- like the Catholic school -- is not to teach children reading and math. It is to develop character -- to help assimilate students into the school's vision of our civilization.
And here, even more than in reading and math, our public schools have become the leading indicator of national decline.
In the public schools today, children are not taught to believe that the traditional family is the indispensible foundation of our society, or that every human being -- including those still unborn -- has an inalienable God-given right to life, or that the United States of America enjoys an exceptional place in the history of nations because our Founding Fathers instituted a government that was constitutionally limited in its functions, leaving it to a moral and self-reliant people to thrive and prosper in a free society.
The liberal elites who generally define and determine what is taught in our public schools do not believe these things and do not want the children who graduate from the government academies to believe them, either.
Today, public schools are competing with Catholic and other religious schools not just in developing the math and reading skills of their students, but for the very soul of America.
May the private religious schools win this all-important contest, too.