Memo To: Steve Forbes
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: America's Public Schools
Have you read Gerald W. Bracey's report on public education in the November 1997 American Heritage, the jewel in the Forbes empire? Bracey makes the plausible argument, backed by statistics and logic, that public schools in America are far better than one is led to believe in listening to the Beltway debate between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. If Bracey's report had appeared in some rightwing periodical, I might not have read it, on the assumption that it would make the same old arguments that the public schools should be dynamited and replaced with a privatized system or voucher system. Because of my admiration for American Heritage, I figured I would learn something new, and that I surely did.
Bracey's central thesis is that the reason we think our public school system has been in precipitous decline these last several decades is because we compare apples and oranges, in several instances. When we compare ourselves with our past, we compare a society that now graduates 83% of our kids from high school, compared to 3% a hundred years ago — a number that did not reach 50% until mid-century. When we compare our kids to the rest of the world, the numbers are also in percentages of students taking the elite exams. The reason we are so far down the list of countries whose students score high on comparative tests is that most of our kids take the tests, while only a fraction of foreign students take the test.
The reason Bracey gives for why we feel so down-in-the-mouth about our public education is politics. Democrats are thrilled with the idea that we are not spending enough on public education, playing upon our guilt to persuade us to tax ourselves at higher rates to provide the resources. Republicans are so eager to kill public education in favor of their pet private projects that they are also willing to massage the numbers and heat up the rhetoric for that purpose.
You have been part of the conservative movement aimed at privatizing the public schools, Steve. I've been cool to that program, although not outright hostile, on the grounds that the American people do not seem all that dissatisfied with the educations their children are getting. It is like the polls taken that show Americans believing the U.S. Congress is composed of nitwits and crooks, with the sole exceptions of their representatives. As long as I see the citizens of the country, at the level of state and local government, not throwing their school boards out and voting for vouchers, I have to conclude that Bracey is right: Our children in aggregate may not be as educated as a smaller percentage of the Japanese or Swedish population, but our children are the best educated by far when you add up their educations at the end of the day.
Forget about vouchers, Steve. They are never going to fly, because it makes no sense to alter the mechanisms of our national education system from top to bottom just so we could show better test scores among a small number of students. Government should provide scholarships for the needy gifted. But otherwise it should not be recycling tax dollars from the middle class to the middle class to finance private schooling. The national objective should be that every family in the nation is wealthy enough to send their children to private schools, as your parents were, and that those not so fortunate would have the fallback of public education.