U.S. Schools: Shaking Up Is Hard To Do

"Public schools."How did two words that once meant respect and pride in America turn into such an embarrassment? Few national institutions generate as much anger today as the school system. Its only rival in public disdain may be Congress--and for some of the same reasons. Like Congress, many of the nation's school systems have become entrenched, self-perpetuating, tax-supported bureaucracies that sometimes lose sight of their mandate.

Instead of educating children, the worst school districts have become political-patronage machines, where jobs are often parceled out along racial lines and exchanged for election-year votes. Most big-city schools are run by large, heavy-handed central administrations. In the suburbs, there are thousands of school districts, each with its own minibureaucracy. The administrative costs of educating U.S. children run to as much as 50% of every dollar spent--double that of private schools and far higher than in Europe or Japan. In America, top-down administration not only robs authority and initiative from principals and teachers in local schools, it soaks up dollars that should be going into classrooms, not boardrooms.

Most dismaying is that America's schools are frozen in political and bureaucratic gridlock some 35 years after the first calls for reform were made. Why Johnny Can't Read was released in 1955. A Nation at Risk, a critical federal report on the education system, came out nine years ago. And while there has been some successful reform and experimentation, they have been on a paltry scale. U.S. students still place 12th or 13th on international tests for math, science, and geography--below South Korea and Hungary. This translates, of course, to an American work force that is less competitive than Japan's or Germany's. In one recent survey, only 12% of employers said U.S. high school graduates write well, and only 22% said they had a good mastery of math. Without a serious upgrading of this country's human capital, any effort to boost real economic growth and family earnings is bound to fall short.


Someone has to step forward and break America's education paralysis. This is where business leaders and the private sector can play a significant role. As outside forces with political clout of their own, corporations can be the catalyst for change.

One example: In Cincinnati in 1990, the dropout rate was 50%, the school district was virtually bankrupt, and the electorate, angry at incessant political infighting, was unwilling to vote a tax increase. Led by Clement L. Buenger, chairman of Fifth Third Bancorp, a group of corporate leaders lobbied the Ohio General Assembly for $9 million in emergency funding--in exchange for a radical downsizing of the school bureaucracy. The central administration was cut in half, with bureaucrats either retiring or returning to the classroom, saving $16 million over two years. The executives also pushed through decentralization by dividing the schools into nine minidistricts.

Cutting down the sheer size of school bureaucracies this way can free billions of dollars. The U.S. now spends 7.5% of its gross national product on public education--more than any other industrialized nation except Israel. So money, for the most part, isn't the problem--it's where the money is going. Giving power to individual schools allows cash to flow directly into the classroom, providing resources to teachers and students, the only two groups that really matter.

A healthy dose of competition can also help end the deadly stasis in education. Within the public school system, giving parents the choice to send their children to the best schools introduces a much-needed market incentive into an otherwise hermetically closed system. If individual schools were freed from bureaucratic and fiscal constraints, they could then vie with one another in attracting students. They would either excel and build better programs and a good reputation among parents or fail, see their student body drop, and face the consequences.


The private sector can play a strong role in fostering competition. Chris Whittle's $2.5 billion scheme for building 200 for-profit schools and enrolling 2 million kids may be more grandiose than grand, but it sure has rattled the cage of the education establishment. And what's wrong with his ideas of an eight-hour school day, using interactive video teaching, or instituting a longer school year? The U.S. has one of the shortest school years of any of its global economic competitors. His plan to have children work in the cafeteria or in the library is a good one. Work, like sports, teaches discipline and team effort. In Japan, children have been working in schools for decades.

As Lawrence A. Cremin showed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning American Education: The National Experience 1783-1876, education in the U.S. has always involved a series of institutions beyond public schools. Families, churches, museums, libraries, and newspapers, as well as private and public schools, have all contributed to educating the young. Today, TV plays a major role. Each institution's contribution has changed over the years as the economy, society, and technology have changed. It's time for the mix to change again.

Indeed, public schools became the dominant factor in American education only after work shifted out of the home to the factory in the 19th century. Parents had less time to teach their younger children skills and values. Today, two-career families and single-parent families have changed the family's contribution to education, with the schools, both public and private, picking up the slack. Downsizing and decentralizing would breathe new life into the country's public school system, and building new, high-tech schools, such as Whittle suggests, might provide new resources on the private side. Anything that could break up the nation's educational sludge at this point is good.

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