The State of American Education

This is an address by William J. Bennett to the Budget Committee Taskforce on Education.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

It is a pleasure to address this taskforce of the Budget Committee on Education. I commend your decision to conduct a review of American K-12 education.

This morning a record 52 million children walked into America’s classrooms. This year Americans will spend more than a quarter-trillion dollars trying to educate them. These numbers alone ensure that education will be at or near the top of the national political agenda. In addition, there is greater political emphasis on social issues — and education is how many people talk about the condition of our children, cultural decline and the nation’s moral well-being. As the debate intensifies, I think it is useful to discuss how much progress has been made in education reform; the obstacles that remain; and how Republicans can do a better job at winning the education debate.

Some progress is being made on the educational front. A variety of indicators — including the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test scores, high school dropout rates, and American College Testing scores — have shown some improvement in the last few years. (Scholastic Assessment Test scores received artificial boosts because of changes made since 1994.)

Mediocre at Best

But almost 15 years after a presidential commission warned in a report titled “A Nation at Risk” that “a rising tide of mediocrity” threatened America’s public schools, student achievement is still mediocre at best. In recent international comparisons, U.S. eighth-graders placed an embarrassing 28th in the world in math and 17th in science. Grade inflation continues unabated. According to the College Board, since 1987 the portion of students with an A average rose to 37% of SAT test-takers from 28% – even though those A students’ combined verbal and math scores dropped 14 points at the same time. Pernicious ideas like “whole-language reading,” “constructivist [fuzzy] math” and radical multiculturalism infect much of the curriculum. Good ideas like voluntary national testing have been politicized and undermined by the Clinton administration. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that only 27% of the public thinks public schools adequately prepare students for the job market. And teachers rightly complain that more and more parents are not upholding their end of the education bargain (for example, by turning off the TV and making sure children do their homework).

Faced with these problems, some public schools are trying to mend their ways. In the notorious Chicago public school system, poorly performing elementary schools have been put on academic probation, 1,100 employees of failing schools must reapply for their jobs, and a back-to-basics curriculum is under consideration. Even teachers’ unions are beginning to acknowledge the need for change. In January, a Washington, D.C., consulting group prepared an internal document for the National Education Association urging that the NEA position itself as an agent of reform or risk “further marginalization and possibly even organizational death.”

But the NEA still can’t abide the change we need – more choice in education. Earlier this year University of Chicago economist Derek Neal released a statistical analysis of Catholic school performance. It confirms (once again) that students from poor, disadvantaged urban communities who attend Catholic schools perform much better than those who attend public schools. Because of growing evidence like this, school choice can no longer be considered a fringe issue, as it was a decade ago.

Today, choice is a central part of the education debate – and public support for it continues to grow. According to a recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, 55% of public-school parents favor vouchers. This is the first time a majority of parents with children in public schools have voiced support for choice for those attending public, private and religious schools. Other encouraging signs abound: In Minnesota, GOP Gov. Arne Carlson won a major victory when he persuaded the Democratic legislature to provide every family either a tax deduction or tax credit if it is used for public, private or religious school expenses. In the process, the governor dealt a body blow to his state’s teachers unions.

Charter schools – public schools that are freed of many regulations in exchange for greater autonomy and more accountability – are flourishing. There are now more than 700 charter schools in 28 states.

Cleveland is the first city in the nation with a state-supported voucher program that allows children from disadvantaged homes to attend religious schools. In Milwaukee, private donors have given enough money to allow thousands’ of low-income children to attend religious schools, a state court ruling having denied children public funds to do so. In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani backed a scholarship program to send 1,300 of the city’s lowest-achieving public school students to religious and other private schools; more than 17,000 children applied. In California, the grass-roots group English for the Children is working to put a referendum on the 1998 ballot to end “bilingual education” – a euphemism for many programs that essentially keep Hispanic children from learning English.

Some congressional Republicans are trying to expand those local gains. In the last congressional session, Sen. Paul Coverdell (R., Ga.) introduced an innovative Education Savings Account proposal for a tax-free savings account in which $2,000 a year can be placed toward any child’s cost of schooling. In short, there is momentum for education reform and there are solid gains to show. Opponents are increasingly on the defensive. Social science research confirms traditional, common-sense views about education. And the national debate continues to move in the direction of greater competition. Nevertheless, many high hurdles still have to be cleared. President Clinton, the teachers’ unions and the courts continue to obstruct genuine reform. The congressional GOP leadership has lost its nerve – witness its quick capitulation when Mr. Clinton threatened to veto the budget deal if it included Sen. Coverdell’s proposal.

Clearly, much work remains to be done. Who will do it? Education is and should remain primarily a state, local and family matter. But there is an important place for political leadership. And political leadership on behalf of fundamental education reform is what we desperately need. Advocates of reform have not offered a sufficiently compelling vision of what would replace the existing monopoly-run public school system. Too often, they sound as if they are on a search-and-destroy mission, or they speak about education the way many husbands speak about, say, interior decorating: stiffly, halfheartedly, without a sense of familiarity, nuance or confidence. In either case, it is better to say nothing at all.

Passion and Conviction

We should speak with passion and conviction on behalf of achievement, assessment and accountability. We need to explain why there is less human misery, more justice and greater opportunity when sound education ideas prevail. It is not mere speculation when we declare our ideas are better. We know what works in American education. Mr. Chairman, we should publicize and replicate success stories, and fashion public policies that foster, encourage and reward success.

A final point: Often, political leaders talk about education in terms of economic competitiveness. That is appropriate but insufficient. We should also talk about education as a way of conveying America’s moral and political principles and nurturing the character of the young. We should speak about education in the context of human excellence, high standards and national greatness. We must demonstrate an understanding of, and a willingness to articulate and defend, the fundamental purpose of education, which is to engage in the architecture of the soul. That is not only the best way to win; it is also the best way to justify the public’s trust.