Make Schools Like the Olympics | Pennsylvania Avenue

The Winter Olympics prove again (as if proof were needed) that competition makes athletes strive to go faster, jump higher and become more agile. Competition also produces better cars, better cellphones and better food. So, why not apply competition to education? Actually, we do. And it works at the university level. Now, Sen. Lamar Alexander, once U.S. Education secretary, would like to extend the principle for low-income K-12 students. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., would like to do the same for special-needs kids. And I think it ought to apply to early childhood education, too. As Alexander points out, the U.S. has the best universities in the world, but far from the best K-12 schools for the vast majority of kids. The data bear him out. We have 46 of the 100 world’s best universities, according to the Guardian of London. In the QS ratings, 7 of the top 10 are U.S. schools, 14 of the top 25 and 19 of the top 50. And Forbes says that 51 of the top 200 are in the U.S. Meanwhile, the latest international rankings issued in December showed that U.S. 15-year-olds rank 30th in math, 23rd in science and 20th in reading. And on every test, U.S. scores basically have been flat for 20 years, despite George W. Bush’s "No Child Left Behind Act" and Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” efforts to boost performance. The failure is not an argument against these federal efforts to improve things or the governor-initiated common core standards, which will peg curricula and standards in the U.S. to international norms. But for them, we’d likely be falling further behind than we are. One result of the disparity between university excellence and K-12 sub-mediocrity is that it will sustain the life advantages of the top 1 percent of income earners, who send their kids to elite colleges. Meantime, the 99 percent — most of them — are consigned to K-12 schools that will cause them to fall further behind international peers and continue damaging their chances for upward mobility. Anyone truly worried about income inequality ought to take notice. Fostering competition in education would help. U.S. universities are great because they compete with each other for students and dollars (tuition and research money) while K-12 education is mainly run by state monopolies that compete hardly at all. Charter schools do inject a modicum of competition in states where school reformers have overcome teacher union opposition to create them. Meanwhile, 16 states do allow parents to take their state aid money to any school they choose and 42 allow them to transfer away from neighborhood schools. Alexander’s proposal would promote the trend nationwide. Instead of federal money being dispensed to the states and local school districts with gazillions of bureaucratic strings and costs involved, $24 billion of it would follow students where their parents wanted them to go to school — even to private schools. One word for it (hated by liberals, loved by conservatives) is “vouchers.” Another (sometimes loved, sometimes hated by both) is “choice.” Alexander calls it "Scholarships for Kids." I’d call it “competition.” As governor of Tennessee in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Alexander pioneered the charter school movement and advanced it as Education secretary under George H.W. Bush. He makes the case that “allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American education for 70 years." “Last year, $33 billion in federal Pell grants and $106 billion in loans followed students to public and private colleges. Since the GI Bill began in 1944, these vouchers have helped create a marketplace of 6,000 higher education institutions — the best in the world.” Alexander’s bill would redirect 41 percent of the federal dollars now being dispensed for K-12 education to states and local districts willing to let it go to schools on the basis of parent choice. It would apply to 11 million low- and moderate-income kids out of 54 million attending public schools and give them $2,100 of federal money. States would add their own per-child expenditure — averaging $10,000 nationally — and private scholarships on top would permit poor kids to access first-rate schools. First-rate schools would be created to attract the students and the money. And public schools, under severe competitive pressure, would up their act. Scott’s bill would let parents shop for the best education for their special-needs children. And I think that instead of Obama’s formula for early childhood education — the money funneled to public school districts to spend under federal mandates — parents ought to get vouchers to pick the preschool of their choice. Obama’s initiative recognizes that high-quality preschool is the best investment society can make in its kids’ future productivity, but it will never pass muster with Republicans. A preschool voucher system might. There’s a precedent for this, too — the $8 billion Child Care Development Block Grant is a program where money follows kids to their parents’ choice of care facilities. Bottom line: Let’s apply the Olympic spirit to American education. Our kids will be better for it.