Common Sense Conservatism: Education

May 16, 1980: a day that will live in infamy. It is the day the Department of Education began operating as an autonomous Cabinet-level department. The national graduation rate peaked a decade before President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education at 77.1%, and has enjoyed an almost uninterrupted decline since, currently hovering in the high 60s. That means three out of every ten students, and almost half of minority students, won’t graduate. The State of Nevada ranks dead last in graduation rates for two years running, as only 47% of high-schoolers graduate.

Everyone agrees that our education system needs to be improved, and liberals and conservatives disagree, as usual, on how to address the challenge. The liberal position typically includes additional funding, even though spending on education has skyrocketed since 1980 with no results to show for it. Conservatives have proposed a number of ideas that routinely get shot down:

“The Party of No” supports School Vouchers, so parents can send their children to the school of their choice, regardless of cost.

“The Party of No” supports Open Enrollment, so parents can choose better performing schools, instead of the one closest to their home.

“The Party of No” supports Charter Schools, which are free from many of the restrictive and costly regulations placed on traditional public schools in exchange for producing measurable results.

“The Party of No” supports Empowerment Schools, which allow for more local control of curriculum, and less micro-management from the Department of Education.

Meanwhile, “The Party of Yes” routinely opposes all of them. Teachers Unions across the country have frequently opposed School Vouchers, Open Enrollment, Charter Schools and Empowerment Schools. And why do teachers unions and many Democrats oppose these choice options? Because they threaten the status quo, which unions and Democrats have worked very hard to establish over the years. Let’s dig a little deeper:

The best example of the successes of school voucher programs is our nation’s capital. The Washington DC public school system ranked 46th in the nation in 2002, and remains below 50% when charter schools are excluded. The District also spends the most money per pupil, at roughly $28,000, proving that money won’t solve our education crisis. Six years ago, Washington DC began a school voucher program that allows low-income parents to take their children out of poor performing schools, and put them in private schools regardless of cost. In fact, the average cost of a voucher is around $6,500, ONE-FOURTH of the cost of enrolling the same child in the public school system that only graduates 48% of kids.

Not only has the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program helped more than 3,000 students, it has done so with significant savings to taxpayers. So why do unions oppose it? And why did Democrats in Congress, and President Obama, END THE PROGRAM? Teachers Unions believe that if school vouchers give parents the ability to send their kids to private schools, there will be fewer students in public schools. Fewer students mean fewer tax dollars, which when combined will lead to fewer public schools, fewer public school teachers and fewer union members paying dues. That’s pretty obvious, and it’s simple math – even if 52% of public school students in DC can’t add and subtract. It should also be noted that a large portion of dues paid to unions are spent attempting to get union-friendly politicians elected, who then continue to oppose common sense reforms like school vouchers.

So is the program worth saving? Does it work? The answer is a resounding YES! The latest report from the Department of Education shows that students who used their vouchers had graduation rates 21% higher than those who did not receive them. It doesn’t take a high school diploma to see how amazing that is. The fact that there are far more students seeking vouchers than there are vouchers to give, clearly illustrates the need for expansion. Liberals believe the public school system will collapse if vouchers remove tax dollars from poor performing schools, but conservatives see it differently. Perhaps if public schools feel the need to compete for students and tax dollars, they will do better in providing a quality education. If the end result is the building of more private schools, and the complete collapse of the public school system, I’m all for it. We should not tolerate a 48% graduation rate when we’re spending $28,000 per pupil in a failing school system. Our goal should be to provide a quality education at a practical cost, which is an area where public schools fail.

Survival is a powerful instinct. I can’t blame teachers unions for opposing these common sense reforms, because they will most definitely result in a less-robust public school environment for them to control. I also can’t blame them for opposing these ideas on the grounds that they will show how truly ineffective our public school systems are. However, we should care more about the students and their results, than about the politics. Whatever reforms work best should be implemented – even if they are advocated by conservatives.

Today in Nevada, the state hardest hit by low graduation rates, U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle is being labeled a radical because of her belief that the Department of Education should be abolished. Is that a radical idea? I’m sure President Carter had the best intentions when he put education in a prominent position in our federal government. But like everything our government does, financial cost always keeps pace with inefficiency. Since 1980, the Department of Education has produced significant cost increases and graduation rate decreases, all in the name of a failed one-size-fits-all approach to education. Do we really need 4,800 bureaucrats spending $80 billion a year (of our money) to fail our kids?

If someone asked you for $1,000, and told you they’d send you back $500 and tell you how to spend it, would you give it to them? That’s exactly what the Department of Education does. It takes our tax dollars and sends a fraction of them back to us with strict instructions on how those dollars must be spent. Do you honestly believe bureaucrats and politicians in Washington know better how to educate the children of your hometown? It isn’t radical to want the Department of Education to be downsized, and returned to the fold of the Department of Health & Human Services. It isn’t radical to want local control over local school systems. And it isn’t radical to want a better education for our children, at a lower cost, with more choice and accountability.

When it comes to education, the Democrats are the “Party of No.” Unfortunately, they get a free pass. Why? Because the vast number of educators and administrators in our nation’s school system are Democrats. They don’t want to call out their own. Meanwhile, the “Party of Yes” built a $578 million school in Los Angeles while Democrats in Washington passed a $26 billion spending bill to save teacher jobs. Apparently a high-tech swimming pool, vaulted ceilings and a marble sculpture of Robert F. Kennedy are more important than teaching students English, Math and Science. Believe it or not, the school cost $78 million more to build than the Olympic Bird’s Nest in Beijing, China. The L.A. Unified School District has a $640 million budget shortfall, and a 35% drop-out rate, with 3,000 teacher layoffs over the past two years.



I’ll leave you with a question. What percent of a school district’s budget (not counting expenditures for capital projects or equipment purchases) should go to the classroom?

If you said 13%, welcome to Clark County, Nevada. And people think spending more money is the solution.