According to U.S. News & World Report, “National tests show little to no gains in math or reading for US students.” The state of American education is in complete disarray.
You might think I’m talking about the fallout from the coronavirus crisis—schools canceled, parents being forced to teach and work at the same time, confusion everywhere. But it’s not just that. I’m writing to you about something that goes much deeper than that.
Whether you are single or married, whether you are a parent or a grandparent, you and every American have a giant stake in how well our nation educates the next generation of our citizens.
If you accept that premise, then I urge you to read my letter, because it details the serious decline in American educational achievement—and what that decline portends for our nation.
But, importantly, the educational disruption caused by COVID-19 also offers a remarkable opportunity. It lays bare both the problems of the present and new ways of doing things. It also describes the exciting movement to expand school choice opportunities for American families, a movement that is already bringing about positive reform in education.
The biggest threat confronting school choice for our children is the constant, aggressive legal attacks launched against popular school choice programs by defenders of the failed educational status quo. And even before the global pandemic forced schools to remote, teachers’ unions were walking off the job, leaving our children to fend for themselves.
The express purpose of these lawsuits and walkouts is to deny children the chance to access an education that meets their individual learning needs. What millions of parents are seeing, right now, in their own homes, is how many schools are failing to meet those needs.
As support for school choice grows from the public and lawmakers—both Democrat and Republican alike—the pushback from unions and special interest groups is the same: lawsuits and intimidation, their only weapons for slowing the expansion of school choice.
We must fight off these opponents to school choice—and ensure that our nation’s students have the freedom they need to flourish?
As I am sure you know, every year, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars—federal, state and local—are poured into America’s public-school systems. The best estimate we have is a staggering $621 billion! That works out to an average of more than $12,000 per student.
Yet despite this enormous investment, we see consistent underperformance on standardized tests and other performance metrics.
For example, in April 2016 the results of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress for high schoolers were released.
- Scores on the 2015 reading test for high school seniors showed a five-point drop since 1992 (the earliest year with comparable scores).
- High school math scores remain unchanged during the past decade.
- While 82% of high school seniors graduated on time, the report suggests that only 37% of them are academically prepared for college coursework in reading and math.
Troubling statistics like these are nothing new.
One recent survey of 15-year-old students in 34 countries showed that Americans ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in mathematics.
And 25 of the nations surveyed also had higher graduation rates than the United States. We are falling behind the rest of the world.
Money is certainly not the problem.
Because even as the measurable “outputs” of American public education consistently decline, the per-student cost burdens of American public education consistently increase, putting enormous financial strain on already stretched state and local finances.
Why are the costs of a declining public education system continuing to increase?
One reason can be found here: the U.S. Department of Education has reported that since 1950 the number of K-12public school students in the United States increased by 96%.
At the same time, the number of public-school teachers increased by 252%…
And the number of “full-time equivalent” public school employees (meaning administrators and other employees who are not classroom teachers) literally exploded…increasing by a whopping 386%.
In fact, the underlying problem with American K-12 education today is our antiquated system of harnessing the funding of education to the administration of education in our public-school system. Fold an unanticipated nationwide shutdown into the mix, and the organizational inefficiency and curricular failures just become that much more obvious.
Now that I’ve gotten the bad news out of the way, I want you to know that we are optimistic that our work to advance educational choice is counteracting administrative waste—and achieving real and significant opportunities for students.
Contrary to the frequently hysterical assertions of defenders of the educational status quo, the founders of EdChoice strongly supported America’s historical commitment to using public funds (taxes) to support education.
But EdChoice parted company with the current system of public education when it came to the public administration of schools.
Instead of requiring that tax dollars, and students, follow a single path to public schools, EdChoice believed that the funds earmarked for education and generated by taxes should be directed by parents to the schools of their choice.
“Vouchers” is the word used as shorthand to describe this means of letting parents direct the public funds designated for their children’s education.
Centralized government, with its big bureaucracies and its inherent predisposition to stagnation, is not good at providing the diversity of educational opportunities and choices that a nation as big and diverse as America needs and that American children deserve.
Government monopolies in public funded education—which is what our public-school systems are—operate like nearly all other government monopolies: poorly.
When the Friedman Foundation came into being twenty-three years ago, there were only a total of 6 school choice programs in the United States.
Today, despite bitter and unyielding opposition from defenders of the failing educational status quo, 65 school choice programs are on the books in 29 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
A more important statistic is that today approximately 1.5 million American children are making use of a variety of private school choice programs to choose a school that meets their learning needs!
Over the course of the past twenty-three years, EdChoice has become the acknowledged national leader in the school choice movement, and the go-to resource center for parents and activists who want to learn how to make educational opportunity a reality.
We carry out our mission with the following activities:
- Research and Thought Leadership—EdChoice is a national leader in school choice research. We publish dozens of studies, surveys, legislative analyses and blog posts each year to help the public, the media and key stakeholders understand how school choice is affecting families and students across the United States and internationally. Our premise is simple: The more people know about and understand educational choice, the more they can help advance the movement.
- Training and Outreach—For too long, parents have been told to sit down, be quiet and let the professionals handle their kids. Policymakers have similarly been bullied by those who seek to protect and preserve an educational system that has chronically failed many of whose who most depend on it as their pathway to a successful life. We offer a variety of trainings to help school choice supporters learn how to advocate for high-quality programs that put students first.
- Focused State Advocacy—We know from experience that bringing new school choice programs to fruition takes a lot of hard work. We also know that educational decisions should be made by those closest to it: at the local level. That’s why we’re focused on engaging at the state level where it makes the most sense while supporting school choice efforts more broadly with our research, outreach and trainings.
Since 2010, the number of school choice programs has more than doubled, from 27 to 65. Today, with school choice programs now on the books in more than half the states, and a pro-school choice presidential administration directing federal education policy in Washington, D.C., I believe that breakthrough has occurred!
And let me make a bold prediction: as things get back to normal after the coronavirus crisis, there will be a groundswell nationwide for greater educational freedom.
Why do I say that? Because millions of Americans are experiencing in real time, the failures of the current education system, and the need for greater choice and flexibility in their children’s education.
And another reason: While a great many public school systems have floundered and failed their students, in spite of their massive taxpayer-funded resources, other private and charter schools have responded to the crisis nimbly and creatively.
At EdChoice, we see firsthand how such schools—ranging from a group of Montessori preschools in Houston to a network of Catholic Partnership schools in Harlem and the South Bronx—have found innovative ways to keep their students (and parents) supported and engaged in the learning process.
But maybe most importantly of all, parents and students are realizing that the public school system doesn’t have a monopoly on education. The “one size fits all” style just might not, in fact, fit them.
But this doesn’t mean everything will change overnight.
Historically, the greatest opposition to school choice has come from the leadership of public teacher unions. Sadly, the union leaders are more committed to preserving their influence as funders of politicians who will dance to their tune when it comes to negotiating lucrative contracts for their members. They believe that any redirection of public funds designated for education away from the public-school systems (to parents, for example), represents a threat to their power.
The union leadership has been helped over the years by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who believe that permitting parents to direct the funds set aside for their kids’ education to religiously-affiliated schools will be counterproductive.