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Crisis In The Classroom

“If crisis is the word we use to describe our health-care system, what word do we reserve for our educational …

“If crisis is the word we use to describe our health-care system, what word do we reserve for our educational system?” asked Oracle Corp. President and CEO Lawrence J. Ellison at an “Empower America” policy conference last June. As someone who hires the graduates of California‘s public education system, Ellison spoke from experience.

He is not alone in pondering that question. In a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey of American businesses, employers reported that one out of five employees is not fully qualified for the position he or she holds. This “dumbing-down” of the work force soon will hamstring U.S. companies in the global marketplace. Some 57 percent of employers surveyed by the Census Bureau said the skills required in their workplace had increased; only 5 percent said they had decreased.

In March, Moody’s Investors Service sponsored a conference on California’s business climate, at which Lewis Coleman, BankAmerica’s chief financial officer, stressed the need for education reform, asking: “How many people can [subsidiary] Bank of America hire out of the students graduating from high school?”

Ray Irani, chairman, president, and CEO of Occidental Petroleum, advocates addressing educational efficiency. However, efficiency implies results, and right now, California‘s educational results are dismal. Only 35 percent of California‘s 10th graders show “thoughtful understanding” of reading material. In math, only 14 percent of 10th graders produce work that is “usually correct and complete.”

California is not an anomaly. In 1992, fewer than one out of four eighth-grade U.S. students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam performed at levels at or above proficiency in math and reading. Internationally, 13year-old American students were outperformed by students in Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, France, and Hungary on 1991 mathematics and science assessments.

Clearly, if the U.S. is to remain competitive, we must reform our educational system-quickly. Regrettably, educational reform in the past usually has meant throwing more money at, and centralizing more control in, failed bureaucracies. Unfortunately for our children, greater financial input has not translated into higher-quality results.

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s 1994 “Report Card on American Education” found that none of the top 10 states in student performance ranked in the top 10 in spending per pupil. At least part of the blame for this disconnect must be placed on collective bargaining agreements that transfer scarce resources from the classroom to union members.

There are five salaried non-teachers for every four teachers in California public schools, according to the Los Angeles-based Education Project. California‘s private schools, on the other hand, staff only one non-teacher for every six teachers.

To restore excellence to America‘s publicly funded schools, we must break the public school monopoly by one of three means: private management of public schools, charter schools, or school choice.

Contracting with private enterprise for day-to-day management can improve schools. If outcomes specified in the contracts are unmet, the contractor can be fired. Such reforms are underway in Hartford, CT, and Baltimore.

Charter schools are independent legal entities that, although public, are freed from the onerous regulations that stifle innovation. Most important, these schools are held responsible for outcomes, which are delineated in their “charter.” Currently, 170 charter schools operate in 11 states.

The biggest obstacles to charter schools are the rich and politically powerful teachers’ unions, which see charter schools as a threat to their hegemony.

School choice, a system of publicly funded vouchers redeemed by parents at private or public schools, holds the most promise for turning America‘s public schools around. But school choice is an anathema to the teachers’ unions, which spent more than $12 million to defeat a 1993 school voucher initiative in California.

Currently, 11 separate private “voucher programs” provide poor, inner-city children with quality education in cities such as Milwaukee, San Antonio, and Indianapolis. A mother wrote to the Children’s Educational Foundation in Georgia, “I thank you for allowing my children a chance-a start at the American Dream.”

Compare those words with the candid remarks of Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, I’ll start representing their interests.”

It is clear where educational reform must begin.

Sally C. Pipes is president of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, a San Francisco-based think tank that analyzes national economic and social problems and proposes free-market solutions

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