School Reform’s Establishment Turn


WSJ Review and Outlook — March 19, 2012, 7:33 p.m. ET

The Council on Foreign Relations endorses choice and competition.

The Council on Foreign Relations is the clubhouse of America’s establishment, a land of pinstripe suits and typically polite, status-quo thinking. Yet today CFR will publish a report that examines the national-security impact of America’s broken education system—and prescribes school choice as a primary antidote. Do you believe in miracles?

American schools have several national-security duties, the report notes. First is educating workers who can keep the U.S. economy strong and innovative amid global competition, which requires skills in reading, math and science, as well as foreign languages and cultures. The U.S. also needs to produce sharp intelligence officers, soldiers and diplomats, as well as techies who can guard corporate and governmental cyber networks. And don’t forget a citizenry that understands how democracy works.

Performance on all these fronts is grim. Only a third of elementary and middle-school students are competent in reading, math and science. Compared to peers in industrial countries, American 15-year-olds rank 14th in reading, 25th in math and 17th in science. Fewer than 5% of college students graduate with engineering degrees (in China it’s 33%), and a third of science and engineering grad students in the U.S. are foreign nationals, most of whom are ultimately denied visas to stay.

The military can’t tap the 25% of American kids who drop out of high school, and 30% of those who graduate can’t pass the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery. In Afghanistan, according to one report cited by CFR, 33 of 45 U.S. officers in positions requiring foreign-language skills weren’t proficient by State Department standards.

The good news is that this grim data is helping to change the education debate, moving away from the dogma that fixing schools requires more money. Even excluding teacher pensions and other benefits, per-pupil spending today is more than three times what it was in 1960 (in 2008 dollars).

The CFR reports says this “suggests a misallocation of resources and a lack of productivity-enhancing innovations. . . . U.S. elementary and secondary schools are not organized to promote competition, choice, and innovation—the factors that catalyze success in other U.S. sectors.”

Spoken like Milton Friedman, but now endorsed by a Council task force led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York schools chief Joel Klein, who is an education executive at News Corp., which owns this newspaper. The authors also include former Fortune 500 executives, leading researchers, and even Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

There are caveats. Beyond school choice, the task force also recommends that states adopt certain “common core” standards and expand them beyond reading and math to science, technology and foreign languages; and that Governors work with the feds to create a “national security readiness audit” of educational outcomes. The latter in particular sounds like a gimmick.

Five members out of 30—including Ms. Weingarten, no surprise—offer dissenting views with familiar complaints that charter schools can’t grow “to scale” and that private vouchers undermine the ethos of common schooling. As if failing public schools don’t undermine far more.

But the real story is how much progress the reform movement has made when pillars of the establishment are willing to endorse a choice movement that would have been too controversial even a few years ago.

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