The National Report Card On Public Education

Aug 12th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

As a reward to the teacher unions of the United States, who strongly supporting his run for the presidency, Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education, a Cabinet level Department with a large bureaucracy, in 1979.  Today that Department funnels billions of tax dollars to elementary, secondary and college institutions throughout the United States.  Especially for the public elementary and secondary schools, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that this Department and the tax dollars spent have not produced a good return on investment.  Arguably, most intellectually honest educators admit that the American system of public education is in need of thoroughgoing reform.  But both Democrats and Republicans have blind spots when it comes to educational reform:  Those on the left generally ignore bad public schools, pander to unions and protect underperforming teachers.  Those on the right tend to stress private schools over public, ignoring the plight of children caught in public schools with no other option.  Furthermore, business leaders who employ college graduates; employers who are looking for qualified high school graduates; and political leaders who are objectively analyzing the return on the investment of the trillions of dollars spent on American education at all levels since 1979 agree that the American educational system is in crisis.

Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana, is one of my favorite writers.  His analysis of accountability in education is priceless:  “I think it’s fair to say that we Americans, whatever our other different predilections, are pretty demanding shoppers. We expect good value in the goods and services we buy and exert ourselves to obtain it. We pass lemon laws and have well-developed doctrines of implied warranty that require sellers to stand behind their claims.  A growing chorus comprising voices from left and right argues that it is past time to bring a similar accountability to one of our most vital services, the education delivered by U.S. colleges and universities. Whether by fining them a fraction of their graduates’ student debt defaults, charging them an insurance premium against such failures to repay, or some similar mechanism, the concept of schools sharing the risk of inadequate performance with the taxpayers has wide and growing support.  That’s a sound principle as applied to higher education, but why stop there? A parallel approach might inject a degree of accountability into the K-12 area, where the performance record is, if anything, worse, and the consequences even more destructive at both the individual and societal levels.”


“Year after dreary year, hundreds of thousands of high school diplomas are awarded to young people who, it turns out, are not nearly literate or numerate enough to identify the main idea of a reading passage or to perform basic computations. We’re not talking about readiness for MIT. Even at the nation’s community colleges, 40 percent or more of students require ‘remediation,’ which amounts to factory recall repair work for a defective original job. The beleaguered taxpayer pays twice for the same service, which far too often fails a second time.

Federal and state governments have rightly focused on high school graduation rates as a paramount goal. The diploma has long been recognized as the first essential step toward productive adult life . . . After a decade in higher education, I’m sure that even a modicum of risk to an institution would produce behavior change. If there’s anything that motivates college administrators as much as money, its reputation, and getting a bill for a share of graduates’ debt defaults would deliver a hit to both. The reaction in the K-12 world would be similar.

When a coffee pot, a lawn mower or a smartwatch fails to deliver as advertised, we don’t hesitate to ask for a remedy, and we don’t expect to be charged a second time. When, aside from public safety, the most important service we purchase from government breaches its warranty, why do we settle for so much less?”


This is the 40th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk” report that decried a “rising tide of mediocrity” in K-12 education, and said if “an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”  Columnist George Will ties this blue-Ribbon commission’s report to The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a.k.a. “the nation’s report card,” for 2022, which shows that a decline that started in 2014 continues: Just 13 percent and 20 percent of eighth-graders met U.S. history and civics proficiency standards, the lowest rates ever recorded, erasing gains made since the 1990s.  He summarizes other salient aspects of the national “report card”:

  • Only 33 percent and 36 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in reading and math, respectively. Eighth-graders were worse: 31 percent were proficient in reading, 26 percent in math. “Four more years of schooling, less proficiency.”
  • “Mysteriously (or perhaps not), California’s most recent standardized test revealed declines in math and English language arts—yet rising grades. Larry Sand, writing in City Journal, reports that 73 percent of 11th-graders received A’s, B’s and C’s in math, while the test showed that only 19 percent met grade-level standards. Among eighth-graders, the disparity was 79 percent and 23 percent. Among sixth-graders’ English scores, it was 85 percent and 40 percent. Amazingly (or perhaps not), the high school graduation rate has risen as students’ proficiencies have fallen.”
  • “Grade inflation, sometimes called ‘equity grading,’ and ‘social promotions,’ which combat meritocracy as a residue of white supremacy, leave a wake of wreckage.” “According to World Population Review,” Sand says, “California now leads the country in illiteracy. In fact, 23.1 percent of Californians over age 15 cannot read this sentence.”
  • As alarming as what students are not learning is what they are being taught. Robert Pondiscio and Tracey Schirra of the American Enterprise Institutewriting in National Affairs (summer 2022), say “public education has drifted toward an oppositional relationship with its founding purpose of forming citizens, facilitating social cohesion, and transmitting our culture from one generation to the next.” Remote learning during the pandemic, say Pondiscio and Schirra, “pried open the black box of America’s classrooms.” Progressives, anxious to slam it shut again, “portray any public involvement in public education, other than paying for it, as an infringement of the hitherto unenunciated right of teachers to unabridged sovereignty over other peoples’ children.  Progressives and their most muscular allies, the teachers unions, stand athwart parents shouting, ‘Mind your own business!’ This is a political argument conservatives can link to the issues of school choice and charter schools, each of which polls well. As North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature has noticed.  That state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, is following the example of the federal government, which currently is operating under 41 ‘declared emergencies.’  And he is emulating the executive grandeur exuded by presidents of both parties who acquire special powers with such declarations. Cooper has declared a ‘state of emergency for public education.’  [His declaration] was occasioned by the state legislature moving to expand the state’s school choice program beyond low-income families. He says that expanding the ability of parents to choose between public and private schools will ‘choke the life out of public education.’ From this prediction, we can infer Cooper’s bleak assessment of many public schools’ inability to compete when parents have choices.”

Public education is a monopoly and parents have no choice when it comes to where they educate their children.  If they cannot afford private/religious schools, they must send their children to the public schools in their neighborhoods.  The voucher system, the charter school movement and other innovations create options for involved, concerned parents.  What is the nature of these reform ideas?

  • Charter schools are fee-free schools that are publically subsidized but independently run.  Generally, tenure for teachers does not apply in such schools and teacher quality is strictly administered.
  • School vouchers give public funds to poor parents so that they can pay the cost for their children to enroll in private schools, if they choose to do so.  Theoretically, the idea is to empower parents to choose the school they deem best for their children.  It is a dimension of what is also called the school-choice movement:  Empower parents to make the wise decisions in educating their children.

Is there evidence that vouchers, charter schools and other innovations work?  Paul E. Peterson, Harvard professor and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, provides some important evidence that makes a viable case for these educational innovations:

  • Parental satisfaction is an important metric in measuring the contribution schools are making to the education of children.  According to Peterson’s survey, 46% of private-school parents say they are “very satisfied” with the quality of their children’s teachers, and 32% of charter-school parents are equally enthusiastic, but only 23% of parents with students in public schools report that they are satisfied.
  • On the important issue of instructing students in “character and values,” 59% of private-school parents report high satisfaction as do 38% of charter-school parents, but only 21% of public school parents report high satisfaction.
  • On school discipline, 46% of private-school parents are highly satisfied, as are 34% of charter-school parents and 17% of public schools.  Very similar results are reported for issues of safety and expectations.
  • Where private-school parents tend to be homeowners with higher incomes and college degrees, charter parents tend to have lower incomes, less education and less likely to be homeowners.  For charter school parents, 21% are black and 36% are Hispanic as compared with public schools, where the parents are 10% black and 25% Hispanic
  • The US Department of Education did a survey in 2012 but the Obama administration never reported the charter-school results from this survey.  Because the raw data are publically available, Peterson was able to access this information, which revealed that both private-school and charter-school parents are more satisfied with their schools than public school parents.  They are also more satisfied with teachers, academic standards, discipline and “the way the school staff interacts with parents.”

Anyone who is objective and intellectually honest must conclude that the public school system must be reformed.  The school choice movement and the charter-school movement are viable options for parents.  Both empower parents and both produce improved satisfaction among parents who utilize these options.  It has been said that the definition of insanity is that you keep doing the same thing but you expect different results.  Public education has been doing the same thing for decades and the results keep getting worse.  It is time for change.  School choice and charter schools are viable options.  They must be considered.

See Mitch Daniels, “Imagine if a lemon law penalized schools for rotten educations,” in the Washington Post (15 February 2022); Ingrid Jacques in the Wall Street Journal (10-11 December 2016); George F. Will, “Why K-12 education’s alarming decline could be a dominant 2024 issue” in the Washington Post (28 June 2023). The Economist (3 December 2016), pp. 12, 21-22 and (10 December 2016), pp. 59-61; and Paul E. Peterson in the Wall Street Journal (13 December 2016).

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