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Say 'No' to Our Schools' Status Quo

by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
November 30, 1993

The following was published as a commentary in the Chicago Tribune.

A school voucher initiative has been rejected by the voters of California, and many supporters of the status quo in the nation's public schools are breathing a sigh of relief. The current educational system has been protected, at least for the moment.

But now that the political battles are over, the philosophical question remains: Is this system really worth protecting in its present form?

The measure's rejection should not make us shrink from the challenge of boldly experimenting with our public school systems. More than ever, we must explore ways to transform a sickly enterprise.

While serving on panels in New York and California that examined the state of our public elementary and secondary schools, I was struck by the terrible ineffectiveness of so many of these schools. It now seems clear that, on average, our public education is the worst of any industrialized nation. Indeed, students in some Third World nations receive a better education than many American youngsters.

Many of our inner–city schools are in a state of virtual anarchy. When the absentee rate is nearly 50 percent for the faculty of some schools, students do not have even the slightest chance of learning. When students must contend each day with guns, gangs, drugs, sexual intimidation and chaotic classroom conditions, they simply cannot succeed.

Our suburban public schools are not necessarily models of excellence, either. As powerful educational monopolies, they often suffer from entrenched mediocrity, reflected in test scores and other indications that these schools do not compare well with their counterparts in other countries. Even students from the most affluent school districts often do not receive the quality of educationthey need and deserve.

Public monopolies rarely can be trusted to provide services of the highest quality unless they are subjected to constant competitive pressures.

These pressures simply do not exist for most public schools. The result is that many students produced by our K–12 educational system are dangerously under–prepared for life in a global economy in which the United States is no longer absolutely dominant.

Fortunately, the more academically talented of our young people say, the upper one–third of our high school graduates can usually overcome the effects of poor K–12 schooling. This is because no matter how under–prepared they may be by international standards, our better high school graduates enroll in excellent American colleges and universities, which are universally acknowledged to be among the best in the world.

Of course it's true that the first two years of work even at our best colleges and universities are essentially remedial by world standards. Even so, our better students usually catch up with their international peers by the time they reach their junior or senior year. When they go on to American graduate schools, our better students often move far beyond their competitors in other countries.

But what happens to the weaker two–thirds of our high school students? What happens to those students who do not go on to excellent American colleges and universities? Most of them never catch up with their peers in Germany, Japan, England and China. And therein may lie the key to the long–term decline of the United States.

Economist Lester Thurow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said that the United States is on its way to becoming a Third World economy, due to the lack of skills among the majority of our high school graduates. And indeed, average personal income (after inflation) in this country has already dropped nearly 20 percent in the past two decades. The influx of women into the workplace has helped keep the average total household income relatively steady, but that figure too will drop as the number of working women plateaus in the next decade.

Thurow argues that there is simply no economic future in a global economy for the unskilled. That is the most compelling reason for us to overhaul the powerful educational monopolies which heretofore have successfully resisted almost all calls for fundamental change.

What will save our ailing public elementary and secondary schools? Competition. The just–defeated voucher initiative had serious flaws, but it at least pushed our public schools toward a more competitive environment. The same competitive forces that stimulate our businesses and our universities to excel can stimulate our K–12 schools to deliver a top–notch product.

One need only look at America's system of higher education to see how competition can create genuine excellence in the public sector. Both public andprivate universities compete head–to–head with each other for students, faculty,research grants and private donations. Many states, including California, provide state–funded scholarships for needy students that can be used at both public and private universities.

In our best universities, university faculty are compensated on the basis of market forces and individual performance, rather than simply on the basis of credentials and longevity. And state regulation of public higher education is minuscule compared to the state's suffocating oversight of the public schools.

Most important of all, no public university exercises monopolistic power over students in a particular geographic district. University students are free and able to vote with their feet. And when they do, the punitive consequences for the universities they leave behind are severe.

America's colleges and universities are truly the envy of the world. They are an indication of what our lagging public schools could become if we were willing to take greater risks in the area of educational reform.

There may be no single magic formula for instilling competition into the system. With our limited wisdom, we may need to try numerous methods before we get it right.

Perhaps school choice in the form of full–cost vouchers for some of our poorest families might be a start, so their children might have a chance to escape a dangerous and hopeless environment. Perhaps we should experiment with smaller urban school districts, or even with separate and competing public school systems serving the same district.

Perhaps we should provide teachers with substantial financial incentives based on the academic performance of their students. And perhaps we should reward our best public schools by freeing them from repressive public–school laws, and allowing them instead to operate under the more flexible regulations that apply to private schools.

The key is that we must aggressively explore new possibilities for educating our children. To protect the status quo in our public schools, or to perform only minor tinkering with the system, will surely doom our children and our country to a future of inexorable decline.