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Public Schools Evade Real Accountability

By John Stossel

I hope the teachers in America's public schools are more candid than their union officials and some of the public-education advocates and leftist smear groups who are criticizing my TV special "Stupid in America." They are promoting myths:

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) accused me of making a "sweeping generalization" about poor American student performance from test results from a few American and Belgian students. Nope. I reported the results from the actual International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. The little test ABC gave matched the PISA results.

MediaMatters, a liberal media watchdog group, claimed we fudged per-pupil spending numbers when we said per-pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, has doubled to "more than $10,000 per pupil per year." They point to the "most recent" 2003 U.S. Census figure of $8,019 per pupil as a "gotcha." In fact, the estimates for 2004-05 from the U.S. Department of Education are well over $10,000 per pupil. Even using MediaMatters' own number, it is irrefutable that per-pupil spending has doubled over the last 30 years.

The NSBA claims "America's public schools outperform private schools when variables ... are controlled." This must refer to the recent study done at the University of Illinois, comparing fourth- and eighth-grade math scores. That study actually showed that public school students performed worse, but after the researchers used regression analysis to "control" for race/ethnicity, gender, disability, limited English proficiency, and school location, they manage to conclude that public school students outperform private and charter school students. When studying education performance, it is far more accurate to compare schools using random assignment -- using kids assigned schools by lottery so that those attending public and private schools come from the same population. Eight such random-assignment studies have been done. All eight find that private school students did better.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) objects that I "conveniently" failed to note that an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study found that "the six countries that spend the most on education as a percentage of GDP ... all score well above the international mean on the PISA." OK, some countries spend a lot of money and do well. But that very same OECD study said that no fewer than 20 countries that spend less money than we do achieve better scores, and that "Spending alone is not sufficient to achieve high levels of outcomes." The United States spends $83,910 per student from ages 6 to 15. The Slovak Republic, which outperforms the United States in this study, spends $17,612 per student.

The NEA also claimed I'm not objective because I make speeches for money. I do, but I donate the money to charities. For example, I give money to Student Sponsor Partners, an organization that pays for poor kids to go to private school. You might say I put my money where my mouth is -- unlike the teachers' organizations, which often put their mouths where the money is.

Perhaps the most fundamentally flawed idea is this all-too-common one: "Public schools were created to provide a 'public good': education for all, regardless of a family's ability to pay ... By contrast, under a voucher system that gives public dollars to completely unmonitored private schools, there is no such right to expect or demand accountability for student performance or how tax dollars are spent." They don't get it. Competition brings accountability. Private schools may be "unmonitored" by bureaucrats, but they face the most demanding kind of supervision our society provides: a market full of freely choosing individuals. Parents' desire for a good education for their children is a much more powerful check on schools than any politician's law or union rule. The people who want to control every young American's education like to talk about accountability, but what they want is to make schools accountable to anointed bureaucrats who think they know what's best for all of us. They evade real accountability -- the kind of accountability where if a student or parent realizes a school isn't doing its job, he can find another one.

I could go on; there are plenty of myths. But the most important point to remember is quite simple: If public schools are good, they have nothing to fear from school choice. Students and parents will choose them.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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