Sometimes trouble strikes unannounced. Witness Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Other times it arrives after fair warnings, gathering like storms on the horizon.
Global economic competition and our nation’s long-term fiscal outlook are two major challenges that fall in the latter category. For children coming of age today, they constitute rising hurdles in their pursuit of happiness and the American dream.
This new generation will have to compete for jobs with adults from around the world. At the same time, they will be forced to shoulder our nation’s crushing long-term debt. That financial bomb will explode as Baby Boomers retire and Social Security and Medicare costs skyrocket.
Our children’s ability to meet these challenges as adults will depend largely on whether we succeed in providing them with a quality education and the skills needed to thrive in the workforce. Today, by any measure, we are failing this test.
U.S. taxpayers now spend $10,000 annually on the average student’s public school education. A child entering kindergarten today can expect to have well over $100,000 spent on his or her education through high school. But spending doesn’t correlate with learning.
Tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that fewer than half of all American students are on grade-level in basic subjects like reading and math. At least a quarter of all high-school students drop out before graduation. On college campuses, literacy rates have declined compared to previous generations.
It’s old news to those who have been following education policy over the past quarter century. But powerful special interest groups, led by the nation’s teachers unions, have largely succeeded in blocking efforts to reform our broken public school system. K-12 education is a $600 billion-a-year industry—and the unions aren’t about to give up any of their market share without a fight.
Reformers have managed to win some important, albeit modest, victories. Accountability advocates have succeeded in improving public school transparency through state-level testing. School choice supporters have helped millions of children escape low-performing public schools and allowed educators to create successful learning environments for students. Reform-driven states like Florida have shown that pursuing a comprehensive approach to reforming public education can lead to dramatic improvement in academic achievement, particularly by minority students.
But despite growing evidence that smart reforms strongly benefit students, change-resistant special interest groups continue to dominate education politics. That was evident last year when Congress and the Obama administration voted to sunset the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a tiny federal initiative that was helping thousands of low-income students attend private schools in the nation’s capital.
A rigorous Department of Education’s academic evaluation concluded that the D.C. voucher program was a success. In reading achievementm scholarship students greatly outperformed their peers who remained in public school.
The program also enjoyed strong support from the local community, including a majority of the D.C. city council. But the National Education Association strongly opposed the Opportunity Scholarship program. And that was reason enough for their allies in Congress like Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to terminate it.
At first glance, this shameful episode appears minor. After all, it only affected a few thousand kids in the nation’s capital. But parents everywhere should recognize that the political forces that crushed the D.C. voucher program also block reforms and initiatives that could revolutionize American education and give their own children much better learning opportunities.
As Terry Moe and John Chubb argue in their important book Liberating Learning, technological advancements like online or virtual education could fundamentally transform—for the better—how American students learn. It could give students and their families more freedom to decide how, when and where they learn. It can give educators the ability to customize instruction to suit students’ different learning styles. And it can give parents real-time updates about their children’s progress.
Technological innovation has already sparked fundament change in American homes and workplaces. But we’re only beginning to see what a bright future it can bring in American education—an education system that actually gives all students a chance to realize their potential.
Of course, like previous reform efforts, the looming technological revolution threatens the status quo. That guarantees intense opposition from the special interest groups that profit so handsomely from the education industry as it exists today.
American parents who want a better future for their children, and all of us who want America’s future generations prepared to overcome the daunting challenges they will face, will have to stand up to the interest groups and give our children the education system they’ll need to succeed.
Dan Lips is Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.