Monday, January 1, 2007

Last month, New York’s Supreme Court ordered the state legislature to increase education funding by $2 billion. According to the New York Times, “The dollar figure was a disappointment to teachers… who wanted more than twice that amount.” Yet, New York already spends almost $14,000 per student, making it America’s third-biggest spender.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), the group behind the lawsuit, advocates the same tired mantra for more education funding shared by unions and other special interests. These interest groups lobby for reforms that have one thing in common: more money for the education system.

Decades worth of evidence have shown more money is not the answer to improving the quality of education in America. This month, the American Legislative Exchange Council — the largest U.S. nonpartisan group of state legislators — released the 2006 Report Card on American Education concluding that “despite substantial increases in resources being spent on primary and secondary education over the past two decades — per pupil expenditures have increased by 77.4 percent (after adjusting for inflation) — student performance has improved only slightly.”

CFE argues that Americans need to shell out billions more — on top of the nearly $500 billion they spend now — to reduce class sizes, spend more per pupil and raise teacher salaries. If these “reforms” were the answer, no doubt most Americans would pay the price. But in fact America’s classrooms have already been shrinking over the last two decades. Today’s class sizes are nearly 11 percent smaller than in 1983 — the year the Reagan administration issued its education report titled “A Nation at Risk,” a clarion call for serious reform in education.

Since then, every state has increased its spending on the education system with Maine, Georgia and South Carolina topping the charts for largest increases. But according to the 2006 Report Card’s state academic achievement rankings, these three states were not in the top 10 states for test scores. Only Maine ranked in the top 20 at 18th while South Carolina and Georgia ranked 40th and 45th, respectively. In fact, of the 10 states that increased their spending the most, only two were ranked in the top 10 according to academic achievement and three of them ranked among the worst 10.

Now, a slightly different lawsuit than that settled in New York is under way in New Jersey’s Superior Court. This time, instead of suing to give more money to the education system, the plaintiffs — a class of more than 60,000 students in 96 failing schools in 25 districts — are suing to give parents more control over their children’s education.

ALEC’s 2006 Report Card reveals that New Jersey is the second-highest spender per pupil at $13,674 in the country (an amount that could cover a top-notch private school’s tuition), has the fourth-smallest average class size in the country and pays more for its teachers than 47 other states do. For the students trapped in New Jersey’s 96 failing schools, these efforts have not helped.

Giving parents more control over their children’s education starts fundamentally at school selection. Upper class Americans have enjoyed the power to send their kids to the school of their choice for generations. Why not afford all American parents the same opportunity? Research has shown that when parents, regardless of income, can enroll their kids in schools of their choosing kids perform better. Why should living in a bad neighborhood mean you must go to a bad school? That’s not American — choice is.

Opponents of choice will tell you not all parents are capable of selecting schools for their child, But what parent doesn’t know where the good schools in their community are? Opponents of choice will tell you school choice programs leave some kids behind, but that just isn’t true. When schools risk losing students, they shape up and the kids in their schools get better test scores. If opponents are worried that some students will be left behind, they should support larger programs that afford more students choices, rather than fight to limit programs across the country as they have done for years.

Opponents will tell you we just need to spend more money on union-approved “solutions” that have failed to make a worthwhile difference for decades. ALEC’s 2006 Report Card on American Education tells us smaller classes, higher teacher salaries and more spending per pupil are solutions for some other problem. They are not the answer to raising student achievement and preparing America’s kids for college and the global workplace. After two decades of failure and almost twice the price, it’s time to give parents the power of choice.

Matt Warner is education task director for the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has more than 2,400 legislator members from all 50 states, and 87 former members serving in the U.S. Congress.

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