"The educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people." So declared that National Commission on Excellence in Education. And a chorus of editorial page writers quickly agreed with the commission's gloomy assessment.
What's amazing is that it has taken so long for the dismal failure of public schooling to be officially acknowledged. Back in 1977, Hudson Institute analyst Frank Armbruster spelled out the decade of decline in achievement test scores between the 1960s and the 1970s—at the very time that public school budgets were soaring and class size was shrinking. Real per-pupil spending increased from $553 in 1950 to $1,523 in 1976. Yet by virtually every measure of performance, public schools were accomplishing far less by the 1970s.
Functional illiteracy has soared, especially among minorities. Academic content has declined dramatically, with few schools requiring much math or science and very few even requiring homework. Discipline has gone out the window, and in many schools vandalism and violence are the order of the day.
The most important question to ask in assessing this educational mess is: Why? After tripling expenditures for public schooling and following all the educational reformers' prescriptions (higher salaries, more counselors, smaller classes, more electives), why has the system failed so completely? Incredibly, the national commission ducked this question, presumably to avoid offending those at fault. Yet the likelihood of the commission's common-sensical reforms succeeding cannot be assessed unless we understand why the earlier reforms failed.
The fundamental reason for the public schools' failure is their monopoly status. To understand why this is so, imagine for a moment that schooling were provided by competing companies, offering their services in the marketplace. How long would a school last if it hired teachers who could not compose coherent sentences, gave them tenure, and promoted them based on longevity rather than merit? How long would a school last if its principal could not maintain order and discipline—but other, competing principals could? In short, if parents could vote with their dollars, paying only for schools that delivered, would we have anything like the current educational results?
Yet today's public school system has no real competition, and hence there is no consumer sovereignty. In functional terms, it exists not to turn out educated children but to provide secure jobs for teachers and administrators. It has become the very model of a self-serving, self-perpetuating bureaucracy—thanks to automatic funding from taxes, regardless of results, and the nearly complete absence of competition (since those who want to utilize private schools must also pay for public schools).
What makes an effective school is no secret. A strong principal, a clear sense of institutional purpose, an orderly climate, high expectations, and objective performance measurement is one set of ground rules enunciated by Prof. Ronald Edwards of Michigan State. It is these characteristics that lead to a concentration on serious coursework, regular homework, and the other sensible suggestions of the national commission. Only a handful of public schools exhibit these characteristics. But, according to Prof. Chester Finn of Vanderbilt University, this set of features "virtually describes the typical Catholic school. They have a clear sense of purpose, strong leadership, discipline, they assign homework, they have high expectations for their students, and they promote based on performance."
Yet the typical Catholic school spends less than $1,000 per pupil, and some as little as $400 or $500. By contrast, public school spending these days averages between $2,000 and $3,000 per pupil. How do Catholic and other private schools do it? For one thing, they pay market wages to teachers—about half as much as demanded by the teachers' union cartels that dominate public schools. They get by without hordes of counselors and administrators (often over 40 percent of a public school's payroll). Yet the quality of education they provide is demonstrably higher than that of the public schools.
And they don't achieve these results by taking only middle-class pupils. Most urban parochial schools today have very high levels of lower-income and minority students. In fact, parents often pull a disruptive, poorly achieving child out of public school and send him to a Catholic school to straighten him out. James S. Coleman's detailed 1981 comparison of public and private schools found that when factors such as income, ethnic group, and other demographics were controlled for, the typical private school did a much better job than the typical public school. Another study, by sociologist Andrew Greeley, found that the pupils benefiting most from parochial schools are minorities.
Under what conditions are we likely to get schools that have competent teachers and high academic standards, schools that actually work? Not by following the conventional wisdom and throwing more money at the educational incompetents who gave us today's public school fiasco. (The National Educational Association, blatantly enough, called the commission's report "exciting"—presumably because of the NEA's conclusion that implementing its recommendations will, as the NEA told reporters, require "additional billions of dollars—and a big boost from the Federal Government.")
It need not cost a penny more to require homework, discipline, performance testing, and academic rigor. Even paying more to attract math and science teachers could be accomplished by not giving raises in other fields and utilizing savings from declining enrollments. But these sensible reforms will be staunchly resisted by the teachers' unions and educational bureaucracy. Instead, additional billions will be used to perpetuate today's flawed system.
Unless…unless, that is, the public school monopoly is broken, once and for all. If public schools were paid by their customers, on an even footing with private schools, only then would real reform be likely. That is why some sort of voucher or tax-credit system is the only real hope for quality education in America. When all parents—not just those who are willing to "pay twice"—can choose schools based on results, only then will we end up with schools that really work.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Textbook Case of Bunk".