Adam Schaeffer | To improve education, let parents choose schools

The school year is in full swing, and a lot less learning is taking place than one might anticipate. However, it’s not just the kids. Virginia ’s politicians still haven’t learned a thing about education reform.
According to the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s report card, two out of three Virginia 8th graders in public schools are not proficient in reading. Twenty percent of Virginia eighth-graders score so poorly that they are basically off the chart because their level of literacy is so low.

We all want high standards and achievement, but students in Virginia are still struggling despite large increases in education spending and new public-school reform gimmicks that fail every year.

Virginia’s parents and taxpayers want to know two things about any possible education reform: (1) Will it work? and (2) Can we afford it?

The only fundamental, broad-based, cost-effective reform proven to raise scores across the board is school choice paid for with education tax credits. Tax credits will spur efficient private investment in education, let poor children escape failing schools, and save Virginia taxpayers huge amounts of money.

Education tax credits are private money. However, because the state and local governments would let you subtract dollar-for-dollar the amount you spend on education from your tax liability, you wouldn’t spend any more at the end of the year. You can either pay the money to the government as taxes or use it for the kind of education you want to support. Tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations help support school choice for lower-income families, and personal-use credits help middle-class families pay for the cost of their own child’s education.

These education tax credits can do what all the money and other reforms haven’t: improve education. There’s a solid consensus that school choice improves the academic performance of children based on the results of more than a half dozen gold-standard scientific studies. For instance, a recent study by the Friedman Foundation on Florida’s A+ program showed that once choice became fully available in 2002-03, public schools whose students were offered educational options outperformed other Florida public schools by 69 points on the state’s developmental scale score.

In fact, within the most rigorous studies, there is little disagreement: school choice increases parental satisfaction, lowers education costs and raises student achievement.

Whereas Virginia ’s NAEP reading scores are dismal, Virginia ’s math scores are worse. Seventy percent of public school eighth graders are not proficient at math. More than 40 percent of those who aren’t proficient are below basic (i.e., off the chart).

If an eighth-grader lacks a grasp of reading, writing, and basic math, he is unlikely to catch up and more likely to fall further behind or drop out. Low performance too often translates into failure in high school — and failure is expensive.

According to Education Week’s “Diplomas Count” report, fully 25 percent of all Virginia students fail to graduate from high school. It’s even gloomier for minorities: over one-third of all African-American students never graduate. Worst of all, over 40 percent of African-American males are slipping through the cracks of our public education system.

The stakes are high: dropping out means a child is at a higher risk for death, jail, unemployment, illness and low wages. Correspondingly, state costs in areas including Medicaid, prisons, and unemployment insurance explode with the ongoing dropout tragedy. And that’s not even accounting for the loss in economic competitiveness — for the state as well as the individual.

Princeton economist Cecilia Rouse has estimated that each dropout costs the nation $260,000 over the cost of his/her lifetime. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that the Commonwealth of Virginia would have gained $7.5 billion if the dropouts from just the 2006-07 school year alone had graduated. For the entire U.S. , solving the dropout problem would have saved $329 billion in just one year.

School choice helps increase student achievement and graduation rates. Just look at the dramatic evidence from Milwaukee , home of one of the nation’s older school choice programs, where choice students are 45 percent more likely to graduate than their government school peers.

With an increasingly competitive global economy, and taxpayers and the poor suffering by paying more to get less, Virginia and the nation can ill-afford to delay school choice. Virginia needs education tax credits now.


– Adam B. Schaeffer, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Education Reform Initiative at the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, and a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

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