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How to Fix American Schools

The first step is for the federal government to decrease its role.

In his message to the joint session of Congress, President Trump declared that “education is the civil rights issue of our time.” This was no hyperbolic Trumpian declaration for the Twitterverse. It’s the truth.

American schools, as a whole, are mediocre at best—ranking near the bottom of the developed world. Thirty years of rhetoric about reform—whether by spending more money or by changing curricula—have had no impact. American educational attainment is stagnant, at best, and likely regressing.

At what point do we admit that our system simply isn’t working, and that no amount of additional funding will fix it?

The facts are damning. We spend more per pupil per year than all but a few countries in the world. Our outcomes, in the best years, are middling. By any objective measure—graduation rates, ACT and SAT scores, dropout rates—increased spending has had no effect.

Here in Texas, where the “Texas Model” of low regulation and taxation has spurred several years of economic and population growth, a casual observer might assume that the Lone Star State is immune from those national trends. In fact, those trends are pervasive here, threatening the sustainability of Texas’s well-earned reputation as the modern land of opportunity.

And yet, defenders of the status quo, both nationally and in Texas, clamor for more money. This, in spite of the fact that barely fifty cents of every education dollar makes it to the classroom.

Thus, the “spend more money for students” claim is a canard. Perpetuating “the system” has become more important than ensuring that every single student has equal access to the best educational opportunities available.

This disparity is acute, if not tragic, in our urban areas. The achievement gap between urban and suburban students stubbornly persists, inoculated against innovation by those heavily invested in the system as a source of professional and political patronage.

How can we fix this problem?

The first step is for the federal government to decrease its role. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will have to resist the natural temptation for conservatives, when in power, to correct federal overreach in education with more federal action. Centralized power in Washington must be trimmed, if not shattered, to refocus our attention and our dollars on students.

But that initial step will require both states and parents to seize the role that is properly theirs. For too long, greased by the intoxicating promise of more federal money, states have ceded ground to Washington. Not coincidentally, parents have seen their own control over their children’s education erode during that time, as the behemoth educracy coalesces first in school districts, then in state capitals, and ultimately, in the nation’s capital.     

The Texas legislature, which meets only biennially, has an opportunity this year to take the lead. Given that 10 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren are in Texas, bold reform can not only help them, but also set in motion innovations that will ripple across the nation.

Lone Star lawmakers are rightly feeling the pressure to take action. The same trends that beset American education—especially in urban areas—beset Texas.

Consider, for example, one of the most basic indicators of educational attainment—the high school diploma. In the United States as a whole, the percentage of people without a high school diploma is 14 percent. There are 28 metro areas where that percentage is higher. Six of them—Dallas (25.8 percent), Houston (24.6 percent), El Paso (23.6 percent), Fort Worth (20.1 percent), San Antonio (19.3 percent), and Arlington (15.7 percent)—are in Texas. Given that secondary school enrollment in those cities is 920,000, our reform ideas ought to be focused on them.

To address that problem, some Texas lawmakers have introduced legislation that would create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), the newest vehicle of parental choice in education. The Texas ESA would operate much like a health savings account. Given that state funding for education follows each child—not the system—the state allotment for each student would be placed in a state-operated account. Parents could then draw from that account to pay for private school tuition, special-needs services, and other approved resources.

Though schoolchildren all across Texas would benefit, those in urban areas would be helped the most, both directly and indirectly. The direct benefit, of course, would be for those students whose parents feel trapped by zip code discrimination—the antiquated notion that students ought to attend schools in their neighborhood.

The indirect benefit, as our research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation shows, is that even for students who remain in “the system,” they would see improved education: once opt-in rates for school-choice programs reach a tipping point, public school districts respond by innovating and addressing problems.

Even still, there are critics. The usual suspects—teachers’ unions, superintendents’ groups, and school board associations—defend the status quo by rote. The result is that their rhetoric focuses on “the system’s money” rather than what is best for children.

Organized support for school choice in Texas—with full-throated endorsements by the governor and lieutenant governor—have defenders of the system on high alert.

Reformers have the high ground. Opponents of innovation are on the wrong side of history, defending an antiquated system whose goal of self-perpetuation has produced an obstacle to the flourishing of young people entrusted to it. Giving families, especially those of modest means, a vehicle for selecting a better option is not only good policy, but a matter of justice. Hence, the president was correct in identifying this effort as a civil rights struggle.

After several decades of funding nothing more than mediocrity, what do we—and our schoolchildren—have to lose from innovation?

Kevin D. Roberts, Ph.D., is a longtime educator and is Executive Vice President of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.