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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 1999 /4 Tishrei, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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School choice wars

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ALL POLITICIANS come out 200 percent in favor of education, especially when an election is coming up. What that usually means is that they are prepared to dump more billions of taxpayer dollars down the bottomless pit of our failing public schools, whether or not that makes any difference whatever in the educational outcome.

During all the years when this approach has failed educationally, it has succeeded politically. Above all, it succeeds in winning the support of the country's biggest union, the National Education Association, which has millions of dollars to contribute to political campaigns. The NEA also has an army of teachers' union members to walk the precincts on election night to get out the vote for candidates who support more and more spending, with no questions asked about the educational results and no consequences for failing.

Texas Governor George W. Bush's first major policy speech has broken with this scenario in two big ways. First of all, he argues against funding failure indefinitely. He advocates taking money away from those schools which continually fail and giving it to parents to spend to take their children elsewhere. Second -- and more important -- he has the hard facts behind him to back up his ideas with his own educational record as governor of Texas.

Texas school children have been having rising test scores under Governor Bush. This has been especially so for minority children. Black children in Texas score higher on tests than black children in any other state in the Union.

This now sets the stage for our first big political clash at the national level between presidential candidates with diametrically opposed positions on educational policy. Vice President Al Gore is still 200 percent behind the teachers union and against allowing children to escape from even the worst schools in the nation.

Al Gore repeats the central argument of those opposed to letting parents take their children out of failing schools -- which is that this will "drain money from the public schools" instead of "investing in the future of our children" by continuing to pour more billions down the bottomless pit.

Let's go back to square one. What is that money there for? To educate students. And if ten percent of the students leave the public school system and take ten percent of the money with them, how is that any less money available per student among those remaining in the public school system?

If half the students leave, are we to continue to spend the same vast billions of dollars to educate the remaining half? Perhaps only a generation that has already suffered from dumbed-down education would buy the half-baked argument about "draining money from the public schools."

Only if you think the public schools exist primarily to provide jobs for teachers' union members does it make any sense to think that the money should stay after the students have gone.

Governor Bush has not launched an attack on the public schools. On the contrary, he has said that they can keep their money as long as they produce results. Even when a school is failing to produce good results on its students' tests, it will still get a second chance to improve. But eventually the time comes when it will have to put up or shut up.

Nothing upsets the teachers' unions like being held accountable for results. They want to hang on to a cushy system where they have iron-clad tenure and automatic raises, whether the students can read or count or do anything else.

In the system that they -- and Al Gore -- are defending, every academic failure becomes a reason to get more money, in the name of "investing in our children's future." But the years of huge increases in spending per pupil, beginning in the 1960s, were the very same years when test scores kept going down every year for more than a decade.

The education establishment is crying out that putting emphasis on test scores will mean that schools will have to "teach to the test." In other words, the educational system will no longer be able to indulge itself in fads and fetishes that strike its fancy, because there would now be a day of reckoning.

Most of us face a day of reckoning every day we go to work. The time is long overdue for the educational establishment to have to do the same.


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