- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

As Nov. 7 draws closer, one thing is clear. Parents want a president they can trust to put education at the top of our nation's political agenda.
In fact, parents of school-aged children are a key-voting block, so ultimately education reform may determine who is our next president. Both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore are staking out clear differences on the issue of education.
In some respects, both candidates agree on the best approach to improve student academic achievement. Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore support rigorous testing for new teachers, accountability for subject matter by both students and teachers, and providing incentives for teachers to teach in the neediest of areas. However, on one issue the size and role of the federal government there is a stark difference between candidates George Bush and Al Gore.
Mr. Gore favors a larger, more intrusive federal role. Mr. Bush favors a smaller, less intrusive role that allows states to make more of the decisions on how and where money should be spent. Mr. Gore has focused on reducing class size as a major campaign theme and the Clinton administration's 100,000 new teachers program as a model policy. But will it improve student performance?
It is not surprising that efforts to reduce class size consistently find support among voters and educators. On the surface, the issue appeals to common sense: With fewer students, teachers can devote more time to individuals and spot lagging students before they fall too far behind. Of course, overcrowded schools need help and a manageable classroom is essential for teachers to work effectively. However, it is crucial not to simply assume that smaller classes are a direct route to increased student achievement. Smaller classes may relieve some of the burden on overworked teachers, but the available evidence suggests student achievement will remain essentially unchanged.
If we look at class size over the last 40 years, we find that in 1961 the average public school class had 30 students; in 1998, there were 23 students in the average classroom. Yet despite this reduction, in the last 30 years student reading scores on the National Assess-ment of Education Progress (NAEP) exam have remained nearly constant. Contrary to mainstream opinion on this issue, evidence from Asian countries actually demonstrates that high student achievement can be achieved with large classes. In Japan, Taiwan, and other countries that routinely surpass the U.S. on international achievement tests, classes are often far larger (for example, nearly 50 students in the average classroom in South Korea).
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are currently 3.2 million teachers in more than 118,000 public and private K-12 schools in the United States. Hiring 100,000 new teachers would not even provide one new teacher per school. And Mr. Gore also fails to mention that nearly two-thirds of those teachers have already been hired over the past two years at a cost of almost $1.3 billion annually.
So why 100,000 new teachers? If class sizes have been falling nationally over the last 40 years without noticeable results, and 100,000 new teachers would do little to further that process, one must ask why Mr. Gore is so gung ho for the program.
One possible reason could be that Mr. Gore sees this as another way to implement a big-government, Washington-knows-best vision in what should be primarily a state and local issue. While the federal government only provides approximately 7 percent of the overall education spending nationally, it still amounts to billions of dollars per year. These billions of dollars come with many strings attached that spell out in the smallest detail just how, when and where that money can be spent.
If we want to truly speed the education reform process, we should allow states and more importantly, local school districts to make the important decisions on how best to meet the educational needs of their students. It is less important to simply increase our investments in education than it is to make sure we are making the right investments in programs and reforms that will improve the quality of education for our nation's children.

Duane Parde is executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the nation's largest bipartisan membership association of state legislators.

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