By Marta Mossburg
— Why do 4,900 children in Louisiana matter to everyone in the U.S.?
Because their fate reveals a universal truth about American public schools: They are rigged for the adults working at them.
A Louisiana judge last week made national news for ruling a school voucher program for those children is unconstitutional under state law. The suit was brought by an education union to stop the program, which allows low-income students from bad schools to attend the private school of their choice. The public schools fled by students were rated C, D or F by the state.
The union, the Louisiana Association of Educators, went so far as to threaten legal action against schools accepting voucher students this summer. It did all of this for the children, of course.
The case will likely be appealed. But as Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice wrote this week, the logic behind the union lawsuit is “it's better for all children to get a lousy education than for some to get the chance to escape to a better school using a voucher.” Since most schools in the Louisiana K-12 public school system are ranked C, D or F, the union has won that battle already.
And other unions have been trying to subjugate learning to their demands in a myriad copycat suits around the country and in campaigns to stop virtually any type of school choice. Currently, Indiana is awaiting a ruling from the state’s highest court on its voucher program. The result of the public school monopoly is generations of children for whom graduation — if they get there — is merely a rite of passage instead of a meaningful stamp of job and civil society worthiness.
Statistics tell the story. Between 1950 and 2009, the number of K-12 public school students increased by 96 percent as the number of full-time equivalent school employees skyrocketed 386 percent, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics analyzed by the Friedman Foundation. And per-pupil spending in public schools has more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past four decades. But student performance has stagnated, showing that those who run the schools have benefited tremendously at the expense of learning.
Even in the best systems, like Maryland’s, which spends an average of $13,738 per student, children struggle with basic writing and math in college. Over 60 percent of students who studied a college prep curriculum in high school need to take remedial classes at community college and the statistics are hardly better at the state’s flagship school, the University of Maryland-College Park. If the successful students in the country’s best school system, as ranked by Education Week magazine, need so much help, what does it say about students in the rest of the country? Can a majority make correct change or write a grammatically correct cover letter after graduation?
The sad thing is, poor and minority students like those in Louisiana and Baltimore City, my former home, are the ones most impacted by failing schools. For them, vouchers have proven a way to escape dangerous schools where those who want to learn are sacrificed for those who disrupt class or worse.
An August 2012 joint study from Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul Peterson of Harvard University shows just how much vouchers can help. The authors compared the outcomes of students who won a voucher through a lottery and those who didn’t in New York City in the late 1990s through 2011. No other study has tracked students over such a long period of time. They found that black students who won a voucher through the lottery were 24 percent more likely to attend college than those who didn’t win one.
Given that the cost of the private program was $4,200 per child over a three-year period, it’s not hard to extrapolate that governments around the country could help millions of kids and save hundreds of millions of dollars by expanding voucher programs, since most private schools can educate children much more cheaply than public schools.
The evidence is there. For the sake of the 4,900 children in Louisiana, millions more throughout America and our economy, children need to start being the focus of our education dollars.
Marta H. Mossburg writes about national affairs and politics in Maryland, where she lives. Read her at www.martamossburg.com. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.