Politics & Policy

America Wants School Reform

American schoolchildren do very badly on international comparisons. It’s not their fault.

The great tragedy of American education is not that the system fails so many children, but that we know why and yet do very little about it.

The statistics still shock, but they no longer surprise.

The United States today spends more money on education per pupil ($11,000) than almost any other country, and yet it routinely finishes near the bottom of international math, science, and literacy surveys. On average, our fourth-graders do pretty well, but by the time those children get to eighth grade they begin to slide, and by twelfth grade they can no longer keep up with many of their peers in other countries.

The situation for our minority students is even worse. According to a recent study, black and Latino students trail white students of the same age by the equivalent of two to three years of learning. And according to the Wall Street Journal, 10 percent of America’s high schools produce 50 percent of America’s dropouts, and African-American children have a 50-50 chance of attending one of them.

My state of Minnesota tells the story. We boast the nation’s highest ACT scores, and at least 70 percent of Minnesota kids graduate from high school. Sounds pretty good, right? But if you look deeper into the statistics, it turns out that fewer than half of Minnesota’s minority students graduate from high school. That pattern repeats itself across the nation.

And yet for decades, a cartel of teachers’ unions, bureaucrats, and politicians has stood in the way of innovation, reform, and results.

In Minnesota, we’ve made more progress than most. My administration created the nation’s first statewide performance-pay program, linking teacher compensation to classroom and student achievement rather than just seniority. We imposed rigorous math and science graduation standards. We established school report cards, so parents could follow the performance of their children’s schools.

We wanted to do so much more, and could have. But the teachers’ unions blocked us at every turn.

In eight years, the only major piece of my education agenda the unions supported was an $800 million increase in K–12 spending in the 2005–06 budget; nearly every other reform was rejected. For all their rhetoric about “the children,” when push comes to shove, what the teachers’ unions really want is raises, every year, for jobs they can never lose at schools that need never compete.

That entitlement mentality just won’t cut it any more. America’s education cartel is an indulgence we can no longer afford, either as citizens paying taxes to dysfunctional governments or as competitors in a global economic market.

That’s why the tide may finally be turning. Strapped by the recession and appalled by the status quo, the forces of reform are standing up to the schoolyard bullies in the education cartel, and winning. Teachers’ unions want money, and more of it. But the rest of America wants better education, and teachers’ unions are in the way.

In Florida, the state legislature finally passed landmark education reforms first championed by Gov. Jeb Bush; unfortunately, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the legislation. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie fought to bring spiraling education costs under control, and he won voters’ support. In liberal cities like Washington, D.C., and New York City, schools chiefs have fired teachers who can’t teach and embraced charter schools.

Even President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are encouraging reform. Yes, the president killed school choice for poor kids in Washington, D.C., and he recently bailed out teachers’ unions with $31 billion we don’t have. But to the administration’s credit, Obama and Duncan have stuck to their guns on their Race to the Top initiative, which at least ties federal education dollars to structural changes in state education policies.

Private or religious schools should be an option for all Americans, not just the privileged few. Public schools should be forced to compete in a field where they will be judged by who has the best teachers and the best outcomes. Schools, districts, and states should embrace market-based reforms that reward good teachers and principals, while removing bad ones. And alternative formats like home schooling, vocational apprenticeships, and online learning should be supported and further integrated into our public systems.

At the federal level, we should create “charter states,” freeing states from the regulations tied to federal education dollars in exchange for transparency and, most important, results.

As schoolchildren return to class across the country this week, the forces for reform are closer than ever to guaranteeing every child a high-quality education. The era of education policy written for and by teachers’ unions is drawing to a close.

– Tim Pawlenty is finishing his second term as governor of Minnesota.

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