Last week, Florida's supreme court ruled that public money can't be spent on private schools because the state constitution commands the funding of only "uniform . . . high-quality" schools. How absurd. As if government schools are uniformly high quality. Or even mostly decent.
Apparently competition, which made even the Postal Service improve, is unconstitutional when it comes to public education in Florida.
Remember when the Postal Service said it couldn't get it there overnight? Then companies like FedEx were allowed to compete. Private enterprise got it there absolutely, positively overnight. Now even the Post Office guarantees overnight delivery sometimes. Competition works.
Why can't education work the same way? If people got to choose their kids' school, education options would be endless. My tiny brain can't begin to imagine the possibilities, but even I can guess there soon would be technology schools, cheap Wal-Mart-like schools, virtual schools where you learn at home on your computer, sports schools, music schools, schools that go all year, schools with uniforms, schools that open early and keep kids later, and, who knows? If there were competition, all kinds of new ideas would bloom.
This already happens overseas, and the results are good.
For "Stupid in America," a special report ABC will air Friday, we gave identical tests to high school students in New Jersey and Belgium. The Belgians trounced the Americans. We didn't pick smart kids in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey kids' test scores are above average for America. "It has to be something with the school," said a New Jersey student, "'cause I don't think we're stupider."
She was right: It's the schools. At age 10, students from 25 countries take the same test, and American kids place eighth, well above the international average. But by age 15, when students from 40 countries are tested, the Americans place 25th, well below the international average. In other words, the longer American kids stay in American schools, the worse they do. They do worse than kids from much poorer countries, like Korea and Poland.
This should come as no surprise since public education in the USA is a government monopoly. If you don't like your public school? Tough. If the school is terrible? Tough. Your taxes fund that school regardless of whether it's good or bad.
Government monopolies routinely fail their customers.
Kaat Vandensavel runs a Belgian government school, but in Belgium, school funding follows students, even to private schools. So Vandensavel has to work hard to impress the parents. "If we don't offer them what they want for their child, they won't come to our school." That pressure makes a world of difference, she says. It forces Belgian schools to innovate in order to appeal to parents and students. Vandensavel's school offers extra sports programs and classes in hairdressing, car mechanics, cooking, and furniture building. She told us, "We have to work hard day after day. Otherwise you just [go] out of business."
"That's normal in Western Europe," Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby told me. "If schools don't perform well, a parent would never be trapped in that school in the same way you could be trapped in the U.S."
Vandensavel adds, "America seems like a medieval country . . . a Communist country on the educational level, because there's no freedom of choice -- not for parents, not for pupils."
In kindergarten through 12th grade, that is. Colleges compete, so the United States has many of the most prestigious in the world -- eight of the top 10 universities, on a Chinese list of the world's top 500. (The other two are Cambridge and Oxford.)
Accountability is why universities and private schools perform better. Every day they are held accountable by parents and students, and if they fail the kids, school administrators lose their jobs. Public school officials almost never lose jobs.
Government schools are accountable only to their fellow politicians, and that kind of accountability is virtually no accountability.