The Magazine

Let’s Talk Education Reform

A GOP candidate’s speech.

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. & MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
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The Republican presidential field is beginning to take shape, and candidates and maybe-candidates are figuring out where they stand and what to say. Sooner or later, they will need to say something about education. May we suggest a few talking points?

Empty Podium


Folks, you know that our education system is tattered. Some of it is fine, but too much is mediocre or worse. Once the envy of the world, American schools are losing ground to those in Europe and Asia. Today, many countries are out-teaching, out-learning, and out-hustling our schools​—​and doing it for a fraction of the cost.

Meanwhile, failed education systems in our cities worsen the odds that the next generation will climb out of poverty into decent jobs and a shot at the American dream. And as much as many of us prefer not to notice, way too many of our suburban schools are just getting by. They may not be dropout factories, but they’re not preparing anywhere near enough of their pupils to revive our economy, strengthen our culture, and lead our future. 

Turning this situation around has been the work of education reform for the past two decades. We’ve spent a lot of money on it. We’ve had any number of schemes and plans and laws and pilot programs. And we’ve seen some modest success. Graduation rates are starting to inch up again. The lowest-performing students have made gains. Many more families are taking advantage of many more forms of school choice. And our best public charter schools are demonstrating that tremendous success is possible even in the most challenging of circumstances. 

Leaders from both parties deserve credit for these gains, including President Bush and, yes, President Obama. We need to appreciate his support for quality charter schools, rigorous teacher evaluations, and merit pay.

But we’ve got a long way to go on this front, and the past couple of years have reminded us that breakthrough change won’t come from Washington. It will come from our states, our communities, and our parents. We’ve also learned that, at the end of the day, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and other Democrats will go only so far in crossing their pals and donors in the teachers’ unions. While they may talk the talk, how they walk​—​and especially how they spend taxpayers’ hard earned dollars​—​reveal far more about their priorities and their loyalties. 

Consider this: The president’s so-called stimulus bill included over $100 billion to bail out our mediocre education system. About $4 billion of this went to promote school reform. In other words, Obama spent 25 times as much to prop up the status quo as he did to push for meaningful change​—​$96 billion just to keep our education bureaucracy immune from the painful effects of the recession that almost everyone else in America has had to cope with.

Is it any wonder we have a whopping deficit, while our schools haven’t improved? Is it any surprise that the National Education Association was so fast out of the gate with an endorsement for President Obama’s reelection?

What did we get for all that money? Nothing. Nada. Zip. No improved student achievement. No breakthrough innovations. No new insights into how to close the achievement gap. No concessions from the unions on their gold-plated health care benefits or retirement pensions or lifetime job protections. We spent $100 billion and, poof, almost all the money just evaporated.

Consider this: For $100 billion, we could have sent ten million needy kids to private schools for two years. We could have created a thousand new charter schools. We could have given the best 25 percent of America’s teachers a one-time bonus north of $100,000​—​or $10,000 a year for ten years. But what did we buy instead? Nothing. We just delayed the inevitable budget cuts for a year or two.

Not that this is unusual for an education system that has perfected the magic trick of making money disappear. We spend almost $600 billion a year on our schools​—​more than we spend on Medicare and more than we’ve spent over a decade in Afghanistan. Yet we know practically nothing about where all this money goes or what it buys.

Can you tell me, for example, how much your local public school spends each year? Five thousand dollars per student? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? I’ll win this bet because nobody knows, not even the principal​—​that’s how opaque our system is.

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