Can American education save itself?

Reforming Colorado’s schools, and their finances, links directly to the larger cause of preserving the viability of our American democracy and the free enterprise system that is its indispensable foundation. Our Centennial Institute Policy Brief entitled “Much Better Schools on Much Lower Budgets,” published last month, offers a new agenda for school reform in the context of fiscal distress in this state and many others today.

A central insight of the Centennial Policy Brief is that public education is an entitlement though historically we haven’t thought of it that way. Furthermore in terms of its size, scope, and metastasizing cost, it is both larger, and more dangerous than the more frequently discussed entitlements of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Left unchecked on its current trajectory American education will be cited by future historians as a central cause in the decline of American Civilization.

If this language seems hyperbolic, it is because the truth of these assertions will be vital to your chances of success in changing the terms of public and legislative debate on this critical issue.

The thesis advanced in this Policy Brief rests on three incontestable realities concerning which America has been in denial for decades. Now driven by the hammer blows of impending financial disaster these realities have been discovered and reported as if they were “fast breaking news” and now with the sudden zeal of converts countless education leaders and commentators across the country have embraced them enthusiastically.

They are as follows:

1. Low Performance of U.S. Schools. The Centennial Brief reported U.S. international ranking as 18th in Reading, 29th in Science, and 35th in Math. Updated results released just last month and given extraordinary coverage across the country confirmed this grim assessment. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the results a “massive wake–up call” and further stated that “America cannot tolerate falling ever further behind our international competitors.”

2. High Costs of U.S. Schools. The many studies of comparative international education spending all reach the same conclusion: The U.S.A. is at or near the top in spending.

Domestically the Policy Brief draws particular attention to neighboring Utah where per pupil expenditure is just 61% of Colorado’s and the well regarded Denver Catholic Schools which come in at 55%.

Despite these facts and the looming fiscal tsunami Colorado education leaders have recently publicly stated that they would need an extra billion dollars “just to be average”. Additionally they are suing the State of Colorado including the State Board of Education in a landmark court case—Lobato—which could ultimately cost Colorado taxpayers five billion dollars. To say that this kind of special interest thinking is wildly out of touch with reality would be an understatement.

Just as the achievement comparisons have been widely embraced, so too all the world it seems has concluded that education spending must be reduced. The aforementioned Education Secretary Duncan only recently lionized as the hero of the now passé “Race To The Top” has now gone to the top of the teacher union’s enemies list as a result of his dramatic conversion to the cause of charter schools and his calling out of those unions over their “bloated pension and benefit schemes.”

3. Abundant models of higher performance coupled with lower cost. Some are within walking distance of this building; others can be found across the state, the country and around the world. Most have been there a long time, but despite occasional media reports of their success, as a society we have never been able to replicate them on a large scale. It’s always been “Oh, you couldn’t do that” or “That wouldn’t work here.” Now our future will depend on large scale replication of successful models.

Thirty years ago pundits were declaring the American auto industry dead. German and Japanese cars were the rising stars of the world market. However American companies didn’t give up. They bought a bunch of those foreign cars, took them apart, figured out why they were better, and more cost effective, and started making such quality cars in America. U.S. sales rose; foreign sales declined; and within a few years the productivity of the U.S. worker surpassed both Japan and Germany.

We can do the same for American education if with courage and conviction we choose to do so. As with the auto industry, however, this is not about “tweaking” but about a whole new design.

The two biggest challenges we face are also our two biggest opportunities to banish the specter of decline and substitute a renaissance of American public education.

The first is entitlements. Today we see whole national economies on the verge of collapse owing to unsustainable entitlement spending. Now the wolf is at America’s door.

As a survey of inaugural addresses by Governors across the country reveals it is they along with fifty state legislatures that must lead the way in this very difficult but necessary task.

The emergency measures taken by the Louisiana legislature in wake of Katrina that have dramatically transformed the troubled New Orleans public schools are a useful example.

The second is the paradoxical issue of class size. Solutions here are within the reach of every local school board in America, and hundreds of them are already doing it, including some in Colorado. The potential savings are immense, and much of those savings can be invested in reform initiatives hitherto starved by our over–investment in class size reduction.

Now, across America, State Boards of Education are asking themselves: “What can we do to address the clear and present danger?” The answer is: “Things you have never done before.” As James Madison said to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 “There now devolves upon you an entirely new class of duties, if the American enterprise is to advance and prosper.”

State Boards have great powers—many that they don’t even know about, more that they’ve never used simply because the circumstances of the day did not require or permit their use.

Time permits but a single small but telling example of how your power changed the lives of some of the neediest children in Colorado.

A few years back some young idealists from Teach For America came before this State Board. Under state regulation as it then stood, they were forbidden to teach in Colorado.

Despite opposition from predictable quarters, your board changed those regulations and as a result some of the best and brightest from the finest American universities entered some of Colorado’s most challenging classrooms and did good things for some of our most at–risk children.

There are many other examples. There are also many possibilities for you to exercise your powers in new ways. As you find those other possibilities and usefully address them our governor, our legislature, and many others will thank and support you because they know they need all the help they can get if our part of this American Enterprise is to advance, and prosper.

This essay is based on remarks delivered by William J. Moloney, a Centennial Institute Fellow and former Colorado Education Commissioner (1997–2007), in testimony to the Colorado State Board of Education, Jan. 13, 2011.

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