(Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from “A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education.”)
The challenges we face are not new. Since A Nation at Risk was published almost thirty years ago, our country has understood the urgent need for reform. Yet today, fewer than 75 percent of freshmen graduate within four years of entering high school, and far too many who do graduate require remediation when they enroll in college. On the latest international PISA test, American high school students ranked 14th out of 34 developed countries in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math. These results are unacceptable in their own right, and a sobering warning of a potential decline threatening our nation’s future.
Our K-12 system also poses one of the foremost civil rights challenges of our time: the achievement gap facing many minority groups. The average African American or Hispanic student performs at the same level in 12th grade that the average white student achieves in 8th grade. More than one in three African American and Hispanic students fails to graduate from high school within four years of entering. This unconscionable reality flows as a direct consequence from the poor quality of the schools that serve disproportionately minority communities in low-income areas. The tragic result is that instead of providing an escape from the cycle of poverty, our education system is reinforcing it.
Politicians have attempted to solve these problems with more spending. But while America’s spending per student is among the highest in the world, our results lag far behind. We spend nearly two-and-a-half times as much per pupil today, in real terms, as in 1970, but high school achievement and graduation rates have stagnated.
Tinkering around the edges and using money to fix the problem has proven fruitless. The recent infusion of stimulus funds has only served to delay the difficult budgetary decisions facing states, which now stand at the edge of a fiscal cliff. Providing more funding for the status quo will not deliver the results that our students deserve, our country needs, and our taxpayers expect. More than ever before, fiscal responsibility and resourcefulness are required to refocus investments and deliver results.
Unfortunately, rather than embracing reform and innovation, America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers. The teachers unions spend millions of dollars to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve. The efforts of teachers will be central to any successful reform, but their unions have a very different agenda: opposing innovation that might disrupt the status quo, while insulating even the least effective teachers from accountability. Sadly, these priorities do not correlate with better outcomes for our children. To the contrary, teachers unions are consistently on the front lines fighting against initiatives to attract and retain the best teachers, measure performance, provide accountability, or offer choices to parents.
Across the nation, glimmers of success offer reason for hope. Charter school networks such as the KIPP Academies, Uncommon Schools, and Aspire Public Schools are producing remarkable results with students in some of our nation’s most disadvantaged communities. Florida Virtual School and other digital education providers are using technology in new ways to personalize instruction to meet students’ needs. In our nation’s capital, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has achieved high school graduation rates above 90 percent in inner-city communities where barely half of public school students are earning their diplomas. These successes point the way toward genuine reform. They also underscore the broader struggles and show how far we have to go.
President Obama’s approach: Don’t mend it, just spend it
When talking about K-12 education, President Obama often emphasizes what he calls the investments he has made in the future. He touts the billions of dollars he has spent and details a list of supposed accomplishments that his administration has achieved. He is right about one thing: He has spent billions of dollars. However, the vast majority of these dollars have not been invested in implementing the types of reforms required to produce real results. Instead, these taxpayer dollars have aided the very teachers unions that worked to get him elected and that have held back for decades the reforms our system so desperately needs. President Obama is not investing in the future; he is spending money borrowed from the future on the past.