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Competition in Education: Bucking the Cartels

You probably know that American kids score lower on math and science tests than students in most industrialized countries. This despite the fact that the United States spends more on elementary and secondary education per pupil than any other country.

Why you probably don’t know is that these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Students in affluent suburban school districts score near the top in the tests, just behind Singapore. For many, if not most, American kids, their local public schools are doing a fine job.

The problem is that there is a large number of kids whose local schools are failing them -- and us -- miserably.

For instance, in my colleague’s home town of Paterson, New Jersey, only 38 percent of public schools students read at grade level. As the recent documentary, “The Cartel,” documents, the numbers are as bad, or even worse, in New Jersey’s other large cities.

It’s not for a lack of money: New Jersey spends more per-pupil than almost any other state.

It isn’t a lack of dedicated teachers: some of the best, most-dedicated teachers, the kind featured in another documentary on education, “Waiting for Superman,” work in these schools.

The problem is that the system operates primarily for the bureaucracy, not for the students. As “The Cartel” pointed out, over 400 school administrators in Newark made at least $100,000 a year. It isn’t only administrators: politically-connected school board secretaries make $180,000, and custodians can make six figures.

Tenure is also an issue. In New Jersey it is virtually impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. Those who are shown the door are often given a generous severance package and the reasons for their dismissal are kept secret.

If all that was involved were a waste of taxpayer money, it would be bad enough. What makes it almost criminal is that the same forces that feather their beds at taxpayer expense work overtime to assure that kids can’t escape failing schools.

As in business, competition is crucial in education. Yet the education establishment will have none of it. In 2008, there were 22 applications for charter school status in New Jersey. Only one application was approved. One. Those whose applications were turned down got no explanation why.

New Jersey may be an extreme example, but it’s far-from-unique. Across the country, millions of kids are forced by law to attend failing schools. Some parents make heroic sacrifices to send their children to private, which almost always means religious, schools. Other children are fortunate enough to receive scholarships that allow them to attend private schools. The rest are left waiting for Superman to save them from the clutches of the Cartel.

You don’t have to be anti-teachers union, much less anti-public school, to see how this violates even the most basic norm of justice. Affluent kids have parents who can protect them -- the most vulnerable kids don’t.

Their “Superman” is us. From monastic times to the establishment of the great universities, right up to the home school movement, Christians have always stood for excellence in education. And we must press for competition in education, even if it’s does affect our kids or our hometowns.

This article published on April 19, 2011.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

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