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The Education Issue We Should Debate This Election Year: School Choice

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The Common Core controversy is mostly forgotten. But traditional public schools are still shortchanging many children.

by Jason Riley
Wall Street Journal
February 16, 2016

Education has not been the election-year issue for Republicans that some expected last summer, when the presidential race was getting started and conservatives’ denunciation of the Common Core standards was all the rage. “Common Core might be the most important issue in the 2016 Republican presidential race,” declared the Washington Post in July. Fortunately, that hasn’t occurred.

The national reading and math standards, adopted by 43 states at the urging of the Obama administration, were seen as a kind of litmus test for GOP candidates. Republican primary voters, it was predicted, would not abide someone who favored more federal control over K-12 schooling. So far, however, Common Core hasn’t been much of a factor.

Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, who opposed the initiative (after first backing it), are out of the race. So are Rick Perry and Scott Walker, two staunch opponents of Common Core. John Kasich and Jeb Bush, who support national standards, are still around. Donald Trump is anti-Common Core, but that hardly explains his large lead in national polling.

Supporters of Common Core operate on the assumption that national standards are essential to lifting academic performance. But there is scant evidence that a new benchmark will produce better outcomes. Studies that compare state standards and test scores show zero correlation between high-quality standards and high performance. Putting quality teachers in the classroom would go a lot further than uniform standards toward improving test scores.

The bigger problem with even the modest attention given to Common Core in the campaign is that it detracts from the much more important discussion about school choice. Jeb Bush spends time defending Common Core that would be better spent promoting his stellar record of expanding education options for parents when he was Florida’s governor. Instead of pouncing on Mr. Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio might explain to voters why Barack Obama has spent his entire presidency trying to shut down a school voucher program in Washington, D.C., that gives poor black and brown children access to private schools and, according to the Education Department’s own evaluation, improves their chances of graduating by as much as 21 percentage points.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have nothing to add to this discussion other than a promise to spend more money propping up traditional public schools. This system has ill-served poor people in general, and underprivileged minorities in particular, for the better part of 50 years.

In his landmark 1966 report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” sociologist James Coleman noted that per-pupil expenditures already were similar in black and white schools and that more spending did not necessarily result in improved student performance. This remains the case today, yet Democrats continue to throw ever-increasing amounts of taxpayer money at the problem in return for political support from the teachers unions that control public education.

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek notes in a new article for Education Next magazine that the black-white disparity in math and reading scores among 12th-graders today is not only significant but, even more disturbing, not much different from where it was a half-century ago. The “modest improvements in achievement gaps since 1965 can only be called a national embarrassment,” writes Mr. Hanushek. “Put differently, if we continue to close gaps at the same rate in the future, it will be roughly two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes.”

These days, the political left is obsessed with income inequality and mass incarceration but has little use for education reforms that are helping to reduce both. In the same issue of Education Next, Harvard professor Martin West describes some of the more recent school-choice research.

Students at Boston charter high schools “are more likely to take and pass Advance Placement courses and to enroll in a four-year rather than a two-year college,” writes Mr. West. Attending a charter middle school in Harlem “sharply reduced the chances of teen pregnancy (for girls) and incarceration (for boys),” and “a Florida charter school increased students’ earnings as adults.” Mr. West concludes that “attending a school of choice, whether private or charter, is especially beneficial for minority students living in urban areas.”

Democrats are unpersuaded by these findings because their opposition to school choice has nothing to do with the merits and everything to do with the politics. The deal they have made with unions is to continue financing a public-education monopoly in return for political donations. Student outcomes are a secondary concern, and bad outcomes are everywhere and always blamed on the student’s background or a lack of resources or both—even though such claims have been discredited for at least five decades.

Republicans should welcome a school-choice debate in an election year. It would be much more consequential than the one over Common Core.

Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).