Contents | January/February 2003

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More on education from The Atlantic Monthly.

From the archives:

"Reversing White Flight" (October 2002)
Even if vouchers don't improve schools, they will almost certainly improve neighborhoods. By Jonathan Rauch

"What Should Children Learn?" (December 1995)
National standards have been thwarted, but state-mandated academic standards and local action can yet save the schools. By Paul Gagnon

"The Newest Minority" (July 1993)
We must face up to a looming political problem: the core constituency for the public schools is shrinking. By Michael Barrett

"The Case for More School Days" (November 1990)
Call it Huck Finn's law: The authentic American flourishes in spite of schooling, not because of it. As applied, this has meant that American kids have one of the shortest school years in the Western world. It shows. Today what Huck Finn didn't know would hurt him. By Michael Barrett

"Plain Facts About Public Schools" (March 1909)
Were you ever a member of a school board? If not, then have hardly been revealed to you, in their fullest measure, the machinations and tendencies of the dual forces that combine to establish our public schools: the educational forces on the one hand, and the public or political forces on the other. By Samuel P. Orth

The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2003

A Grand Compromise

Saving American education requires ending the reliance of public schools on local property-tax bases
by James P. Pinkerton
n 1983 a federal education commission warned that "a rising tide of mediocrity" threatened the well-being of the republic. That tide has not ebbed. Nearly two decades later, in 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment found that American fifteen-year-olds ranked fourteenth in science literacy and eighteenth in mathematics literacy among the thirty-two countries administering the test, scoring below the average for developed countries in both categories. And although President George W. Bush and Congress recently united behind the grandiosely titled No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, few observers outside Washington, D.C., believe that the legislation will have anything more than a marginal effect on student performance.

Further reading
selected by James P. Pinkerton
All Presidents claim to be "education Presidents," but the schools drift along, up a bit, down a bit, always costing more money, but never making the sort of dramatic gains witnessed elsewhere in American life. Why should this be?

U.S. schools today are the product of three different educational eras: the agricultural (which produced the nine-month school year), the industrial (which emphasized rote learning and regimentation to fit the rhythms of mass production), and what might be called the experimental (which promoted a range of nostrums, from sex education to Whole Language, often at the expense of basic skills). Each of these has left its own layer of sediment to muck things up in the present. The worst legacy of the past, however, is localized school funding, which not only produces great regional inequalities in spending per pupil but also nurtures the persistent incompetence of many schools.

Today about 45 percent of school funding comes from local sources, such as property taxes. In Virginia, for example, average per-pupil spending in rural Hanover County is only half that in suburban Arlington County. In New Jersey, which has been struggling to equalize school funding for three decades, the schools in Elizabeth spend 70 percent more per pupil than do the schools in Toms River.

Beyond state lines the disparities grow even worse: among school districts with enrollments of 15,000 or more, spending ranges from $3,932 per pupil in DeSoto County, Mississippi, to $14,244 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Rectifying such imbalances requires a national solution. "Most of the resource inequality cannot be resolved at the state level," David Grissmer and Ann Flanagan, analysts for the Rand Corporation, have written. "States spending the least are southern and western states that also have a disproportionate share of the nation's minority and disadvantaged students." Yet the federal government does little to address this systemic inequality, and continues to contribute only about seven percent of the total spent on elementary and secondary schools.

o what's an "education President" to do? Happily, the means of reforming elementary and secondary education does not lie in some obscure theory, or in some other country. It has been right in front of our eyes for decades: the model of the Pell Grant program.

Colleges and universities compete, in effect, in a single national market. The federal government pumps $10 billion a year into college education through Pell Grants. The GI Bill and other aid programs add billions more. Pell Grants have an inherently equalizing effect on per-student funding: every qualifying student in the country has access to the same amount—a maximum of $4,000 a year—and can spend it at the accredited college of his or her choice. Thus much of higher education is more equitably funded than K-12 education. Moreover, because Pell recipients decide where their grants are applied, the program is driven by students, not administrators.

Why not build on the Pell model, and apply it to elementary and secondary education? Total K-12 public school spending, for some 47 million students, is currently about $350 billion a year, slightly more than $7,000 per pupil per year. Expanding on the Pell model would mean giving every American elementary and secondary school student $7,000 to spend at the school of his or her choice. Unlike Pell Grants, this money would be given to all students, regardless of the level of need. This would create, in effect, a grand compromise between left and right, guaranteeing more-equal funding (which the left wants) and more choice for students (which the right wants).

Making this happen, of course, would require a radical reshuffling of financial responsibilities among the various levels of government. But such a reshuffling is not unprecedented; after all, though states and localities once bore the cost of raising militias, national defense is now a federal responsibility. Since 9/11, of course, federal responsibility for homeland defense has increased, to the point where a new Cabinet department has been legislated.

Education is no less a national priority than defense. Education reformers should not shrink from the full implications of their goals; it's time for the federal government to do more for education—and for state and local governments to do less. It is true that the $350 billion a year in spending that the federal government would have to take on from state and local governments is no small amount. But at three percent of GDP, it is less than the annual U.S. military budget, and less than what the federal government spends on health care each year. And because state and local governments would be able either to spend the money currently allotted to education on other priorities or to rebate money to taxpayers, any federal tax increases or spending cuts made to accommodate this new system would be at least partially offset.

Of course, many conservatives and some liberals might object to the loss of local control over schools. But local control is in some ways detrimental to education and to equity. In the Jim Crow South, after all, local control was synonymous with "separate but equal"; today an insistence on local funding ought not to be a cover for maintaining separate and obviously unequal schools.

Moreover, conservatives ought to be pleased with the second element of the grand compromise: expanded choice. The current method of funding K-12 education balkanizes school districts into pockets of excellence or indifference; a federal grant program would make all schools part of a national system, in which no child would be forced by accident of region or neighborhood to attend a bad school.

Because students in such a system could attend the schools of their choice, they would create a self-correcting market. If a given school was inadequate, students could go elsewhere, taking their funding with them. The fragmentary evidence of the past few years suggests that schools faced with competition will struggle to retain "market share."

Of course, if schools in Mississippi are substandard at $4,000 per pupil, there is no guarantee that they would be better at $7,000 per pupil. One of the bitter lessons of the twentieth-century welfare state is that a bureaucracy has an apparently infinite capacity to absorb extra money without producing additional output. But under this proposal schools would have a compelling interest in responding to an exodus of students; a school that failed to respond positively would lose its financial base.

Critics of this plan will say that it is a form of vouchers—and they will be correct. But this plan can't be derided as an attempt to undermine the public schools by bleeding away their students. Rather, it's an attempt to lift all schools into the mainstream by equalizing funding across the country, improving the odds that every child receives an education appropriate for this century.

What schools would be eligible to receive this grant money? Public schools only? Religious schools? Home schools? Ideally, every kind of school, though as a practical matter certain schools would not be made eligible right away. The politics of reform must sometimes yield to the slower-moving politics of the possible. But once the principle of federally funded choice was established, its application would expand as the education market reacted to the new incentives.

This is just the outline of a grand compromise on education. If the right celebrates "liberty" untrammeled by bureaucracy and the left celebrates "rights" guaranteed, if necessary, by the government, the two can come together in behalf of a system of federally funded equal opportunity. Although neither side will like everything about this proposal, both might yet decide they like the status quo even less. And federally funded choice is a bold assault on the orthodoxies of the status quo.

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James P. Pinkerton, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is a columnist for Newsday and a contributor to Fox News. He formerly served as a domestic-policy adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2003; A Grand Compromise; Volume 291, No. 1; 115-116.