As Nevada Goes

America's melting pot of an education system still has a lot to learn.

Today: School Choice

BOB: Starting in the next school year, Nevada will become the first state to allow education tax dollars to be used by all students and their families for access to private, public and charter schools. On the face of it, this seems a cutting-edge law to deal with one of the country's most vexing problems — the failure of many public schools, especially in inner cities. The question is: Will it be the first step in eliminating public education as we know it?

CAL: You might expect a conservative to say, "I hope so," but there are good public schools that deliver a perfectly fine education. In areas that don't, especially where poor and minority students reside, parents and students deserve the right to choose which school offers the best education, and which is the ticket out of poverty and a better life.

BOB: An early attempt at education choice was charter schools. These were meant to attract the best and brightest students and provide them a level of education they often could not find in their local school districts. The problem is that of the thousands of charter schools, many are outright failures. Take the Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology in Kansas City. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Banneker is no better than traditional Kansas City schools, which are teetering on the edge of a takeover by the state.

CAL: One of the fallacies about education is the connection some politicians make between the amount of money spent and academic achievement. A CATO Institute study concluded that decades of taxpayer spending has not improved student performance. In fact, the study says student performance has actually declined in mathematics and verbal skills, despite the tripling of per-student spending over the past 40 years. If money and good grades were related, we would have national merit scholars coming out of public schools by the hundreds of thousands because we are spending nearly more than ever on them.

BOB: Schools alone are not to blame for underachievement. The breakdown of the family, poverty and decaying cities with eroding tax bases have made a good public school education nearly impossible in many parts of the country. I have long been an advocate of school choice, but I also believe the problem lies with school administrators and union leaders who refuse to believe there is such a thing as a bad school. Thousands of schools need to be shut down. Charter schools are not a panacea. In Washington, D.C., according toThe Washington Post, 59% of traditional school students graduated from high school last year, while only 69% graduated from charter schools.

CAL: I agree on your point about other contributing factors to underachievement. This is not an academic conversation we are having. There is proof school choice works for many kids.

BOB: What proof?

CAL: The Manhattan Institute studied the effects of school choice in Charlotte, N.C. It found students who received a scholarship to a private school showed improved scores on standardized math tests. Standardized reading tests also improved for those who chose private schools. Fifty-three percent of Charlotte parents gave an A grade to their child's private school, as opposed to just 26% of parents who gave an A grade to their child's public school. Student achievement and parental choice should be the standard by which any school is measured.

BOB: I agree, but school choice is a relatively new concept in American education. Despite some positive signs, such as Charlotte, Banneker in Kansas City proves education choice does not work in every situation. One fact is not refutable, and that is that American public school students are falling behind students in Asia, especially in math and science. The U.S. once led the world in virtually all academic categories. That is no longer the case. I am willing to watch carefully what happens in Nevada to see whether it succeeds.

CAL: The Children's Scholarship Fund offers tuition to private schools for inner-city kids. The program is extremely popular as evidenced by a long waiting list. Here's one key finding from a Harvard study of CSF: "Private school parents are more likely to report that they are 'very satisfied' with their schools' academic quality, safety, discipline and the values taught." Public schools are America's last big monopoly. When they were created in the 19th century, it seemed like a good idea, but they have exceeded their "sell-by" date. It's time to try a new approach. Put the kids first.

BOB:We Democrats who have taken up the cause of aiding the poor cannot turn our backs on failing schools just because teachers' unions contribute big money to our party. If things turn out well in Nevada and elsewhere, especially for the disadvantaged students, we should possibly seek to apply that education model to the rest of the country.

CAL: If you had met as many young people as I have who are the products of private schools — even home schools — you would marvel not only at their level of achievement, but also at their self-confidence and love for this country. Achievement, discipline, character — these should be the goals of any education model. When that model fails to achieve those goals, it's time for a new model. Success in Nevada could make choice that new model.