California School Days

Education: California Gov. Schwarzenegger is at odds with his school superintendent over how long the academic year should be. But is educational success, key to global competition, a matter of time, money or choice?

The argument over what to do about America’s struggling schools is still raging. Programs such as No Child Left Behind have achieved some success by introducing a measure of accountability into the process. But American students continue to get clobbered on international tests by other countries whose school systems spend less money per student and have larger average class sizes.

Facing budget realities in a down economy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed shortening the school year by five days to contribute $1.1 billion in savings toward the state’s $42 billion budget shortfall.

State school superintendent Jack O’Donnell vehemently disagreed, saying a longer school year was needed to prepare students for “the competitive global economy.”

The operative word here is “competitive.” Success in the marketplace depends on being able to produce the best product at the lowest cost. Competition in the business world produces a better product at less cost. Why shouldn’t it be so in education? Well, it is.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 70% of the countries that outperformed the U.S. in combined math and science literacy among 15-year-olds had more schools competing for students. Countries ranging from Japan to Latvia all had more education options than American students.

Vicki E. Murray, senior fellow in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute, reports that among the 32 countries participating in the latest OECD assessment, the U.S. led in teaching hours per public school year — 1,080 — compared with an international average of 803.

The issue, it would seem, is not the time spent teaching.

Germany and the Netherlands, she notes, average around 773 hours, Finland 600, with Korea at roughly 575. Japan trails at 500 teaching hours per school year, roughly one-half ours, and routinely cleans our school clock. Students need quality time, not quantity. Gimmicks like all-year schools don’t work.

Nor is money the issue. California has the eighth-largest economy in the world and spends about $40 billion on K-12 education. Yet it ranks No. 48 among the states in basic reading and math performance.

U.S. cumulative spending per student between the ages of 6 and 15 is $80,000, according to Murray, and our average math score is 475 out of 1,000. Sweden spends as much, but its students perform 100 points higher. The Slovak Republic spends just $15,000 and has an average student score just below 500.

Study after study has shown no correlation between dollars spent and educational performance, and things such as standardized testing and school report cards will show not only this but just how much of our education dollars are often wasted.

Washington, D.C., for example, has one of the highest per pupil expenditures to go with what is arguably the worst academic performance in the nation.

District school spending is around $13,400 per student — third highest in the nation. Yet in 2007 D.C. public schools ranked last in math scores and second-to-last in reading scores for all urban public school systems in the U.S., according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program provides vouchers of up to $7,500 for students in kindergarten through 12th grade that allow students to attend one of 60 participating nonpublic schools.

This demonstration program serves some 1,900 students. A recent Education Department report found nearly 90% of Opportunity Scholarship students have higher reading scores than peers who didn’t receive a scholarship at significantly reduced per-pupil expenditures.

If a resurgent American economy is going to compete successfully in the global economy, that competition will begin in America’s schools. Let parents pick the schools as they pick other products they consume. And let schools compete for students as companies compete for customers.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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