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As published in The Dallas Morning News, September 11, 2001
Students have returned from their summer break blissfully unaware of the battles being fought on their behalf across the country. The fiercest and most critical of those battles is being fought over the future shape of our public education system.
What is the truth about U.S. public education? It isn't a simple story, of course, but it is one where bad news still is the rule rather than the exception.
According to our best measure of student performance, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly a third of fourth-graders can't solve basic math problems, and more than a third of eighth-graders and high school seniors are in the same boat. In reading, 37 percent of fourth-graders, 26 percent of eighth-graders and 23 percent of seniors scored below basic levels on the national assessment. Math scores have increased slightly since 1990, but reading scores essentially have remained stagnant for the past decade.
Few deny that public education for all is one of America's noblest ideals. But as Terry Moe shows in his authoritative new work, Schools, Vouchers and the American Public, parents now are as eager as ever to gain access to a broad range of education alternatives. Not surprisingly, the thirst for alternatives runs highest in our inner cities.
Ironically, the real good news in public education is a product of the bad news. As with crime in the late 1980s and welfare in the early 1990s, everyone but the most partisan ideologues now acknowledge that U.S. public education needs fixing.
Thankfully, testing is one element in President Bush's original education plan that has survived the education legislation now before Congress. Whatever national testing regime finally is adopted, the push toward greater accountability is being felt in each and every classroom across the nation. Results from state tests will provide parents and others in the community with a window into the operations of their local schools.
Choice, however, is the linchpin to a public school system based on accountability. It also is the key to boosting parental involvement in education – the single most important predictor of student success – and bolstering competition within the system. Much to my regret, the modest school choice proposals in Mr. Bush's original plan were stricken from the legislation. Indeed, conservatives found it impossible to persuade moderates in their own party to vote for even a pilot school choice program.
Nevertheless, we know that choice already is improving student achievement and spurring other public schools to improve. Harvard economist Carolyn Hoxby has found that school choice has improved the productivity of public schools in general. And Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute has shown that "simply providing families with additional options in the education of their children has a larger independent effect than student spending or reducing class size."
Despite the recent defeat of state voucher proposals in Michigan and California, choice of various kinds is gaining momentum. Public school choice is allowed in 37 states. The number of charter schools across the nation has grown from four in 1992 to nearly 2,500, serving more than 500,000 children. Virtual charter schools, which will enroll thousands of students this fall, are one of the most promising and innovative models in public education. And four states now are using the tax code to help ease education expenses for families and encourage private gifts to scholarship programs. Roughly 1 million to 2 million children (depending on which estimates you believe) are being educated at home and are demonstrating excellent results.
We have been having a long and serious debate about the state of American education since "A Nation at Risk" in 1983. Yet public schools still are in need of deep and lasting reform. Now isn't the time for more dialogue. Now is the time for action.
William J. Bennett, a former education secretary, is co-director of Empower America and chairman of K12.com, an Internet-based elementary and secondary school.