A Conservative Perspective

by Cameron Douglas

It’s a familiar narrative in policy-related morality plays. Young, scrappy reformers see an opportunity to make life better for people. Then the big, bad political establishment – egged on by lobbyists and interest groups – do everything in their considerable power to stop them. That is, in its simplest form, the story of education reform in the United States.

Conservatives are pushing for reforms that will improve our education system and work better for students. Democrats and teachers’ unions are doing their darndest to make sure they fail.

American education is undeniably imperfect, to put it mildly. Spending on education is, in constant dollars nearly 10 times what it was in 1945 – $1,200 per student per year then, and over $10,000 now. Measures of achievement – test scores, graduation rates, etc. – have been flat since the 1970s.

The natural conservative response to the abject failure of the American public school system is to improve public schools by competition, and to help the poorest children in the country to escape failing schools. There are two methods for doing this: giving low-income parents vouchers to send their student to any school, public or private, of their choice; and charter schools, which receive public funding but operate independently of state control (and, crucially, often outside the jurisdiction of teachers’ unions).

School choice voucher efforts have been successful in improving educational opportunities throughout the country. In Washington, D.C., a 2010 study found that students given vouchers to attend private schools instead of public schools had an 82 percent graduation rate, 12 points better than the public school average. Charlotte, N.C., students enrolled in private schools through a voucher program were shown to have reading and math scores that were above average by eight and seven points, respectively. Many of these low-income students are minorities, and for low-income students of any race who can’t afford to move into a better school district, vouchers and charter schools are often the only alternatives to failing schools.

Louisiana, under the leadership of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), has been at the forefront of this effort, beginning a program to give private school vouchers to low-income students. Jindal frequently points out that 90 percent of New Orleans students are now in charter schools, and the number of students there whose reading level is at or above their grade level is double what it was five years ago. Jindal is now attempting to replicate New Orleans’ success statewide.

However, the U.S. Justice Department is determined to stop these reforms. Attorney General Eric Holder filed a federal lawsuit against Louisiana over fears that school choice would lead to segregation. Never mind that these concerns are unfounded: public schools are often de facto segregated because of the geography of their districts. Private schools, on the other hand, not limited to district lines, are able to draw a much more diverse body of students – and they’re prohibited under state and federal law from discriminating when doing so. Studies in Milwaukee, Cleveland and DC have all shown that with school choice comes increased integration in private schools.

Charter schools, too, are an attractive option for parents looking to get their children out of failing public schools. Funded by the government, charter schools are given more leeway in their operations in exchange for stricter standards of achievement. In New York, for example, charter school students learn, on average, the equivalent of an extra month of reading and an extra five months of math relative to their public-school peers. New York, however, also finds charter schools under attack. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has denied charter schools the right to use public buildings in the city.

The success of charter schools and voucher programs show two things. First, that traditional public schools, and the teachers’ unions that run them, are not succeeding. And second, that when parents, who understand their child’s needs better than any government bureaucrat could, are allowed to choose what’s best for their child, that freedom results in a more successful child. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it?

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A Liberal Perspective

By Samantha Bronkar

Nearly 50 million students in the nation – from kindergarteners to high school seniors – are enrolled in public schools, compared to about seven million students in private or charter schools. This means that the majority of society’s education is tasked to our public education system.

The future of society lies largely in the quality of our children’s education, and yet only 6 percent of the federal budget is used for education. Meanwhile, 57 percent of the proposed 2014 discretionary budget will be used for the military.

Education isn’t even part of the mandatory spending budget. When calculated into the overall budget, including both mandatory and discretionary spending, only 2 percent of the $3.8 trillion the U.S. will spend in 2014 will go towards education. Compared to the 17 percent spent on defense, it is clear that our schools, teachers and children aren’t as valued by society as they need to be.

Faculty, programs and courses are constantly being eliminated due to budget cuts. Over the past five years, Illinois has removed massive amounts of funding from its public education system. “We’ve seen at least 6,400 full time teacher and aide positions cut since FY09 – often meaning larger class sizes and less time for teachers to interact with individual students,” the Illinois State Board of Education said. “Districts have also been forced to slash academic, extracurricular and enrichment activities, from foreign language to sports, art, music and many more programs.”

FY09, which was enacted in 2009, has been topped by FY13. Since its enactment last year, FY13 reduced the Illinois education budget by $861 million. Students, parents, teachers and faculty members have undoubtedly felt the impact of such a massive cut in their budget. Less after-school programs, pink-slipped teachers, cuts in art, music, foreign language courses – it’s the same tragedy across the nation.

Those in favor of private institutions argue that their schools are self-sufficient and do not depend on taxpayers’ money to support them.

True, but isn’t it – or shouldn’t it be – society’s job to prepare and support future voters and economic contributors? The progress of society absolutely hinges on the intellectual capabilities of our youth. Shouldn’t the education of our children be of utmost priority?

Another plus for private schools is that they pay their own teachers, create their own programs and standards, and remove a massive burden off the shoulders of the federal and state governments.

The problem? Private school teachers make about 72 cents for every dollar a public school teacher receives. “Private school teachers make way less than public school teachers. Average salaries are nearly $50,000 for public, and barely $36,000 for private. That’s not just a gap. It’s a chasm,” Ben Orlin of The Atlantic wrote.

Private schools may be saving the federal government from extra funding. Unfortunately, the problem then lands in the hands of our teachers. The ones facilitating and encouraging the growth of our youth are struggling at the hands of private institutions.

Private K-12 schools have their benefits. They often have unique communities, well-funded athletics programs and are able to offer a liberal arts approach to education.

But for the millions of students unable to attend such schools, it should be our duty to provide them with the best education possible. There is a problem when over 1 million students drop out of public schools every year. Currently, two-thirds of eighth-grade students are unable to read at a proficient level, and even fewer are proficient in math.

These students, drop-outs and deemed failures are our future. More than anything, it seems that our society has failed them.