No, private schools and parental choice can lead to better outcomes.

While we vociferously debate the role of government in delivering health care, a more necessary debate is on whether the federal and state governments should continue to be involved in educating our kids, given the dismal results.

According to the Federal Department of Education, total tax payer spending for K-12 education was $536 Billion in 2004-2005, about 4.7 % of our entire economy then, exceeding even our spending on national defense. Per capita spend on a student is highest in the United States among developed nations, often exceeding $13,000 per year in most states. While the federal government constitutionally mandates that all kids be schooled by the states, it only provides 8.3% of the funding, leaving the rest to cash-strapped states and local governments. Schools today are mired in a bureaucratic mess that stifles innovation and achievement, with highly paid administrators, a tenure system that allows poor performing teachers to thrive based on seniority, and forces teachers to spend their own money buying supplies.

By virtually every measure of achievement, American students lag far behind their counterparts in both Asia and Europe, especially in math and science, with academic achievement. While Finland tops in academic achievement, students in Poland, Estonia, Korea, and Japan far exceed ours. By the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) measures, the United States ranked 15th out of 29 countries in reading literacy and 21st out of 30 in scientific literacy! Our students spend less hours in school than in most other nations. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates. As any parent who has gone to an AP (Advance Placement) night would attest to, most public schools encourage kids to seek the least common denominator and really dissuade ambition to achieve what a private school kid would strive to work for.

In this flat world of today, our kids need to be prepared as adults to not just compete with those in Boston but also in Bangalore or Seoul or Penang for jobs of the future. We are fast losing our competitive edge as a nation and multi-national companies are heading to where talent is being nurtured.

While discussing this article, my 15-year-old son astutely defended that public school education affords every child an opportunity to go on to college. But what if both the federal and state governments get out of the business of education, return the tax dollars to the parents who can choose a private school that meets their kids needs and raise the bar on their achievement? The private schools will then start competing on tuition rates as well as quality of instruction to attract and retain students with wide latitude for teachers to try innovative techniques. That is a win-win situation for students, parents, and teachers and indeed for the nation. As President George W. Bush wisely said, “the soft bigotry of low expectations” should be over.

Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.

Yes, the role of government in education is irreplaceable

9/11 is a Zionist plot because no Jews were killed,” and “Djinns are responsible for the success of Pakistan’s nuclear tests,” assert the multitudes of Madrassa students schooled in Pakistan’s “alternate,”  non-governmental school system, born of Zia-Ul-Huq’s muddleheaded downsizing of the government’s role in education three decades ago. With its education system hijacked by religious zealots answerable to nobody and whose sole strategy to silence everybody, an educationally paralyzed Pakistan finds itself in an intellectual and moral abyss from where rescue is impossible.

Are we trying to replicate Pakistani failure in the educational realm?

It is important to notice inherent contradictions in contemporary education at the university level in the United States where education is not state-guaranteed—America’s finest universities are as outstanding as they are inaccessible. While education is ostensibly a right, it becomes a privilege for everybody excluded by exorbitant tuition costs. The approach of ensuring quality through entrepreneurship at the university level is failing the youth of this country.

At the high school level, the government’s underwriting of expenses has made education accessible to a large percentage of the population, resulting in the creation of a functional and trainable workforce, a building block of American success and competitiveness after the Second World War. Tax credits (or any variant replacing government’s role in education) will recreate the existing inequities of American universities in the school system—the better the school, the pricier the admission, effectively denying a quality education to those who cannot make up the difference between a school’s market price (a variable influenced by market forces) and tax-credits (constant and consistent across the board).

There is no denying that the public school system in the United States needs improvement. But the problems can be addressed by vigorous governmental intervention, such as changing the funding formula to include extra transfers from the federal government, better teacher compensation, and higher standards for everyone involved in the educational process. The government can assist in making teaching a rewarding profession through introducing incentives for teacher trainees, modeled along the lines of ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.) The success of countries like Finland and Poland only highlights the need for a robust public education system—Finland’s education system is funded by the government and free for its citizens. Poland has a strong state-run education system as well.

Ejecting the government from education exemplifies throwing out the baby with the bath-water—it is important that government not only continue but strengthen its presence in education.

S.Gopikrishna writes on issues of interest to India and expat Indians..