Jack Kelly: Why does U.S. trail in student achievement?

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In 1970, our schools, from kindergarten on, were the envy of the world.

In the four decades since, per pupil spending in the public schools, adjusted for inflation, has increased 250 percent. College tuition has risen four times faster than inflation.

But today we lead the world only in spending per pupil. We trail far behind our major international competitors in student achievement. The U.S. is the only OECD country where young adults haven't learned more than their parents were taught in school.

In earlier columns, I've shown how little our children learn even in college, and how this blights their futures, harms the economy and threatens the viability of our democratic institutions.

"So what would you do?" several readers have asked.

The system we have now is hopelessly corrupt. It must be pulled out, root and branch. That expression originated with a bill in the House of Commons in 1641 to abolish the positions of bishop and archbishop in the Church of England. They were designed more to enrich those who held them than to spread the Gospel, said supporters of the Root and Branch bill. The Church's top down system led, to a "great increase of idle, lewd and dissolute, ignorant and erroneous men in the ministry."

So, too, with the cartelized, top-down system of education that's developed here since the 1960s. It's designed to benefit the providers of "education," not the children who need one, their parents or our country. Their numbers and remuneration have soared, but our children learn less than ever.

We had world class schools before the educrats messed everything up. If we restore the decentralized, bottom-up system controlled chiefly by parents that made our schools the envy of the world, they will become so again.

• Both the dumbing down of our schools and the vast increase in their cost began in the 1960s, when the federal government assumed a role in education. This is not coincidence. The only appropriate role for the federal government in education is to gather and publish statistics, so Americans can see what's working, and what isn't, on the local level. This should be the responsibility of the Census Bureau. The Department of Education should be abolished; all federal subsidies and mandates eliminated.

Teacher unions and colleges of education are to learning what syphilis and gonorrhea are to romance, so state governments:

• Must make it easier for schools to fire poorly performing teachers. States also should restrict -- as Gov. Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin -- the featherbedding teacher unions impose on local districts.

• States should remove requirements that public school teachers be "certified" by colleges of education. Without this mandate, these abominations would wither away.

• We rely on state governments to reduce the funding disparities between wealthy districts and poor ones. They should do this by empowering parents. State aid should take the form of vouchers that parents may cash in at the public school in their neighborhood, a public school in another neighborhood or district, or a private or parochial school. Freedom of choice is absolutely essential for kids trapped in horrid inner city schools. But it's good for everyone.

• Rather than direct subsidies to colleges and universities, state support for higher education should also come in the form of vouchers to students. Students who receive vouchers should be permitted to cash them in at any accredited public or private post-secondary school within the borders of the state.

• Local school districts should make all education policy decisions for those districts, to include the qualifications of teachers and what they are paid; what teaching materials are used; what subjects are required, and the length of class periods, the school day and the school year. Local districts should also be free to decide whether to segregate some classes or schools by gender, or to require school uniforms.

Some parents, and some school districts, will make mistakes. But they can't possibly do worse than the so-called experts have done.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1476.


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