- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2000

The National Education Association (NEA) launched a $1 million advertising campaign last week to teach viewers a lesson in virtual reality and it's not the kind you find on the Internet. "The success of schools in the 1990s has been unparalleled, and we want all Americans to share in our pride and in our dream to make schools better," an NEA memorandum describing the ad said.

Directing viewers to their Web site, www.nea.org, the ad encourages an examination of "objective research" that underscores progress in American schools and highlights its members' commitment to reduced class size, safe schools and quality teachers. The problem is, as the Heritage Foundation study cited in the above points out and as even the NEA's own Web site recognizes, smaller class size doesn't equal better student performance. Perhaps the $1 million ad campaign, funded by dues from teachers who must hand over their earnings as a condition of employment in many states, is supposed to convince viewers that the poorly performing schools they've seen or heard about are really figments of their imagination.

But even if one were to accept the premise that spending money to reduce class sizes is the best measure of student achievement, the case for federal oversight is hard to make. Currently 12 cents of every federal education tax dollar does not return to school districts. That's money from which local teachers and local students could have benefited.

Accountability for both spending and academic performance increases once the students' parents and school district are the ones to make the decision as to where the child should study and how the money allotted per student should be spent. A 1999 Indiana University study of Cleveland's voucher program found scholarship students showed improvement in language and science achievement scores, according to the Heritage study. And after only one year in a New York school choice program, a 1998 Harvard study showed low-income scholarship recipients scored higher on math and reading tests than their peers who did not receive scholarships to attend the school of their choice.

The NEA says such programs drain government schools of much-needed funding. But for all the patriotic feelings the ad campaign may inspire about what it is to be an American in today's public education system, it has yet to prove that giving parents and students choice over their lives is anything but beneficial.

In the meantime, the union could do its part for improved performance by spending the next million dollars it takes from its members on students and educators, rather than on buffing its image.

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