Real accountability requires real choices

With fresh data showing that students in the United States are falling further behind their international peers, a commitment to universal parental choice at all levels of government is needed now more than ever.

Without putting too fine a point on it, our nation’s sustained competitiveness and long-term economic survival hang in the balance.

According to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — released to considerable hand-wringing in Washington, D.C. recently: — America’s reading scores have slipped by four points over the last nine years. Our 15-year-old students now trail their counterparts in Shanghai by 56 points — with even larger gaps existing in science (73 points) and mathematics (113 points).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called these disappointing results a “wake-up call,” adding that “I think we have to invest in reform, not in the status quo.”

He’s right. But Duncan’s boss — President Barack Obama — has made it clear that he categorically rejects the one reform that America has yet to try. And not only does Obama oppose expanding parental choice, last year he shut down Washington D.C.’s limited, means-tested program — a decision that prompted USA Today to rethink its previous position on this important issue.

“By federal measures, students at 12,978 U.S. schools are failing to improve adequately — 13 percent of the total,” USA Today wrote last May. “Giving them another option, by vouchers or by other means, provides an escape route and pressures public schools to improve.”

American politicians have tried to fix our nation’s chronic academic woes with more taxpayer money — but those efforts have failed.

“Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending increased 42 percent between 1989 and 2007, from $7,911 to $11,233 per pupil,” a recent Rockefeller Institute study noted. And thanks to Obama’s bureaucratic bailouts, the recent recession hasn’t slowed this explosive growth. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a record $1.1 trillion was spent on education funding during the 2009-10 school year.

Politicians have also tried adding new layers of bureaucracy — including funding federally-administered education grants beginning in 1965 and creating the 5,000-employee U.S. Department of Education in 1980 to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.”

While these efforts have similarly failed to accomplish their objectives, they have succeeded in extending the reach of the federal government far beyond its intended scope — forcing taxpayers to pick up a whopping $1.4 trillion (and counting) tab.

In 1990-91, the federal share of total K-12 spending in the United States was just 5.7 percent. That total has nearly doubled over the intervening two decades to 10.5 percent.

Part of this ever-expanding taxpayer obligation includes new “accountability” measures like President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Yet instead of erasing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — and improving test scores — these costly exams have merely created another set of numbers to be manipulated and another layer of bureaucracy to be subsidized.

In their latest attempt at satisfying increasingly impatient parents, politicians have turned to “Choice in Name Only,” or choice within the government-run system. A handful of municipalities – but no states – have also passed limited, means-tested choice programs.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been halfhearted at best — and the limited availability of options has also limited the constituencies needed to protect them from bureaucratic poaching. During the last school year only 62,000 students nationwide were given academic scholarships. Meanwhile, 1.4 million students attended charter schools.

Let’s hope they hurry, because the world clearly isn’t waiting.

The author is chairman of Americans for Limited Government.