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Commentary: How both parties have shamefully abandoned America's children

Parents, schoolchildren, and education activists rally for public charter schools in Brooklyn, New York. Education in America is failing, and both parties are refusing to act. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In a deeply divided America, Democrats and Republicans can agree on very little. But one thing both parties seem to have in common is that they care more about winning elections than they do about improving our broken education system.

Compared to other developed nations, the traditional government education system in America has unquestionably failed to adequately prepare children for the challenges of the modern world. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, last administered in 2015, reveals that the United States, despite its vast resources and billions of dollars spent on education, continues to underperform.

The Brookings Institution reports:

The [2015] PISA test scores did not bring great news about the American education system, as the United States continues to hover around the international mean for reading and science literacy. On the mathematics literacy section, the U.S. even notched its lowest score to date at 470; this represents a decline from the previous two tests, but it is not statistically significantly different from its first-ever score in 2003.

And there’s virtually no sign the traditional school system is markedly improving. Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show there has been little progress made since the 1970s in improving students’ reading, math, writing, and science skills.

You might be tempted to think the reason we’ve seen so little improvement is because policymakers have yet to figure out the best way to fix government schools, but nothing could be further from the truth. Study after study shows that when parents are empowered with the ability to move their children to the school of their choice, educational outcomes are enhanced.

A 2016 report by EdChoice examining 100 empirical studies of school choice programs shows the research is “remarkably consistent” on the question of whether education choice benefits kids, with EdChoice researcher Greg Forster concluding, “It is clear school choice is having a positive effect.”

There are numerous reasons giving parents educational options is so beneficial for schools, but perhaps the most important is that competition forces schools to perform at a higher level. Can you imagine if all Americans were forced to buy a car and most families were forced to buy their cars from only one car company?

It wouldn’t take long for the car company to realize it could lower the quality of its cars without losing any cash while also increasing the pay and benefits for its workers and executives. Innovation would be slow, and perhaps even nonexistent. If the car company were guaranteed to get paid regardless of whether it innovates and improves its product, why would it?

This is exactly the situation with U.S. government schools. They don’t need to innovate because most families can’t afford to send their children to private schools, and most school districts don’t allow children to attend schools outside of their own designated geographic region unless they pay additional money.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of school choice, few states have large school choice programs, and most school choice programs are narrowly tailored so that only relatively few children, often special-needs kids, qualify. This problem is just as widespread in red states as it is in union-friendly blue states. In fact, many of the states dominated by Republicans have some of the fewest education choice options.

For instance, Inez Feltscher Stepman, in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s most recent “Report Card on American Education,” awarded “D” grades to Alabama for its poor private school choice and charter school programs. Deep-red Wyoming earned a “D” grade for its charter school program and an “F” grade in the category of “Private School Choice Programs.”

Some might argue the reason these programs don’t exist is because parents aren’t interested in school choice programs, but that, too, is wrong. EdChoice’s “2017 Schooling in America” survey found 71 percent of parents support education savings accounts, which give to parents thousands of dollars in an education-only spending account, which typically can be used at any private or public school to cover the cost of tuition and other education-related expenses.

There’s no mystery behind Democratic lawmakers’ failure to grant to parents education freedom. They receive huge financial support from teachers unions, which are staunchly opposed to school choice programs because they would significantly reduce the power the unions have enjoyed for decades.

In the 2017-18 election cycle alone, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, two of the nation’s most influential unions, have spent more than $13 million on various political activities, with much of their efforts going directly or indirectly toward blocking school choice.

Republicans don’t receive significant funding from teachers unions, but some state-level Republican leaders do receive substantial union support. Perhaps more importantly, establishment Republicans in states where the GOP enjoys substantial power have become dependent on unions come election time, especially in state and local elections, where union members voting as a bloc have immense influence. This helps to explain why Alabama, Texas, and many other Republican strongholds still have very few school choice programs.

But this is likely only part of the problem. In some rural and suburban regions, parents might say they support school choice but then do little, if anything, to ensure their local lawmakers enact school choice programs. Further, there are many parts of the country where local schools have become central community institutions. In these communities, some Republican voters aren’t interested in putting at risk Friday night football and other cultural institutions.

Children deserve better educational opportunities, and the only thing keeping that from happening is us, the American people.

Justin Haskins (Jhaskins@heartland.org) is executive editor and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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