School Reform: Right Diagnosis, Wrong Rx

By J. Robert McClure, PhD., President & CEO of The James Madison Institute
Posted March 8, 2012
Originally Posted on WCTV6-CBS Editorial Blog on March 7, 2012

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein deserves a lot of credit as a champion of school reform. During his eight-year stint (2002-2010) running the Big Apple’s well-funded but chronically underperforming school system, he battled one of the nation’s most powerful teachers unions in an effort to bring about a modicum of accountability for what pupils were learning – or not.

Chancellor Klein talked about his ambitious blueprint for school reform at Disney World in 2008, when he took part in an education summit co-sponsored by The James Madison Institute and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Now CEO of the Education Division at News Corp., Mr. Klein is still a prominent advocate for school reform. In a new Washington Post op-ed column titled “Education must move to center state in presidential election,” he describes how far American kids lag pupils in other nations.

     “New research shows that only one-quarter of America’s 52 million K-12 students perform on par with the average performance of the world’s five best school systems — which are now in Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Taiwan and South Korea.
    “Even worse is U.S. performance in advanced achievement in math and science, the best predictor of the engineering and scientific prowess that will drive future growth.
     “Sixteen countries produce at least twice the percentage of advanced math students we do, according to research from Harvard and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
     “The United States spends more on schools than most wealthy nations as a share of GDP yet ranks in the middle to the bottom of the pack on international comparisons.
     “McKinsey estimates that the cost of this achievement gap vs. other nations is up to $2 trillion a year — the equivalent of a permanent national recession.”

Unfortunately, having diagnosed the problem, Mr. Klein – as the title of his column suggests — laments the lack of attention to education during this election season’s spate of debates among the candidates for the White House.

     “Only 1 percent of the time and questions in Republican debates have touched on schools since an education forum I co-moderated in New York in October. This is crazy. Does any parent or CEO in America think education is 1 percent of the agenda in an age of global competition?
     “Unless voters insist that candidates give education the attention it deserves, this will be another political season in which both sides offer pabulum without seeking a mandate for the ambitious reforms our schools require.”

I’m sorry to disagree with someone as eminent as Mr. Klein, but our nation’s schools were arguably performing much better during those bygone years before the teachers unions gained power and before federal government started meddling in what ought to be a concern of state and local governments – and parents.

Using a carrot-and-stick approach in which federal aid is contingent on obeying congressional mandates, the federal government has succeeded in diverting untold millions of dollars from the nation’s classrooms to state and local bureaucracies created to respond to the federal bureaucracies in Washington.

How involved are the feds? The Heritage Foundation reports that a new Government Accountability Office study says there are151 federal programs dealing with grades K-12. These programs are housed in 20 different federal agencies at an annual cost of $55.6 billion.

Ironically, a better approach to school reform is the model that Mr. Klein himself practiced in New York City: a model wherein committed school leaders such as Mr. Klein, allied with concerned and caring parents, battle on behalf of the kids.

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