"School choice can halt high tide of mediocrity"

By Vicki E. Murray
LA Times via Edfly.com
Article Last Updated: 01/22/2008 10:47:52 PM PST

"The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."

Sound like the education section of a current presidential candidate's stump speech? It's actually from the landmark 1983 Department of Education study, "A Nation at Risk." In the 25 years since the report was released, education spending has doubled in real terms, but student achievement has flat-lined.

U.S. eighth-graders outperform fewer than half of their peers on international assessments. By 12th grade, they perform on a par with students from Lithuania and surpass only students from Cyprus and South Africa.

Such mediocrity plagues suburban public schools, too, not just the mostly poor, inner-city ones so commonly associated with substandard academic performance.

California is an acute example. At more than 10 percent of affluent, middle-class public schools, fewer than half of the students in at least one grade level are proficient in English or math on the California Standards Test.

This despite the fact that fewer than one-third of these schools' students are poor. Few students are English-language learners or have disabilities. Most parents in the community are well educated, and most, if not all, teachers are certified.

Take Prospect High School in the wealthy Silicon Valley enclave of Saratoga, for example. The community's median home price is $1.6million,

but only 23percent of its geometry students are proficient on their math exams, as are only 12percent of its algebra students.

With such poor scores in the tech industry's backyard, it's no wonder that Silicon Valley executives fret about finding enough talented foreign workers to fill the jobs their growing industry demands. Most of America's business community believes that the current system does not prepare students for the work force, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The solution for this malaise is one the business community should be familiar with: competition.

Allowing parents to send their children to any traditional public school, regardless of where they live, raises school productivity by at least 28percent in terms of higher student achievement and more efficient spending. Competition from independent public charter schools multiplies those effects.

For example, poorly performing schools in Michigan and Arizona saw increases in annual math and reading scores after only 6 percent of their students shopped with their feet by opting for charter schools. Those improved scores came without a penny of additional state expenditure.

We've already applied competition to higher education in this country, as colleges and universities - both public and private - must compete for students and their education dollars. It's no coincidence that America's higher-education system is the envy of the rest of the world.

Vouchers and tuition tax-credit scholarship programs introduce similar competition at the level of kindergarten through 12th grade. In fact, such programs yield the same gains in math achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as raising per-pupil spending by more than $3,000 does.

In the District of Columbia and the 13 states that have them, school voucher and tuition tax-credit scholarship programs have saved almost half a billion dollars - all while delivering superior academic results.

It's not too late to stem the "rising tide of mediocrity" in education that we were first warned about 25 years ago - to prepare students for the rigors of today's global economy, end the monopoly system of assigned schooling and open the schoolhouse door to competition.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is senior fellow in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento. She is co-author of "Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice."