A mid the well-justified concerns about the quality of America's education system is ample reason for optimism. In recent years, there has been a renaissance in America's private schools and other encouraging developments for those who are seeking alternatives to the conventional public-school system. Perhaps most importantly, these developments are helping to drive solutions in the public-school system which today serves more than 46 million children. The 26,000 private elementary and secondary schools in the country serve appr-oximately 4.9 million students.
First, it should be noted that there indeed is a crisis in many of our public schools just as there was 14 years ago when the seminal report, A Nation at Risk, warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity." Today, the tide remains high.
The 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, found that nearly one-third of all students were not able to do basic grade-level mathematics work. In eighth-grade math tests conducted in 1994-95 U.S. students recorded below-average results, trailing countries such as Singapore, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Austria, France, Hungary, Russia, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Thailand and many others.
Scholastic Assessment Tests scores also have stagnated. The combined score for the 1994-95 school year, 910, represented an increase of less than 2 percent from the 1982-83 score of 893 and remained 5 percent lower than 1967-68, when the average score totaled 958.
The current problems are not for a lack of financial commitment, however. In inflation-adjusted terms, the average expenditure per public-school student nearly had doubled in 1994-95 to $6,933, up from $3,579 in 1967-68.
Yet, since 1967-68, teacher pay has increased only 12 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Where has the other money gone? A good part has been funneled into administration. In fact, the number of nonteaching personnel at public schools has increased from 386,360 in 1949-50 to 2,355,797 in 1994, a 609 percent increase.
Rather than just spending more money, what are some true improvements that have been tried and tested?
* Parochial Schools: America's Catholic schools, where the average tuition is under $2,200 annually, have seen steady growth since 1990. More than 2.6 million children now attend these elementary and secondary institutions. For the past 15 years researchers have documented these schools' successes with minority and disadvantaged students.
Recently, Derek Neal, an associate professor in economics at the University of Chicago, reported that the probability that inner-city students would graduate from high school increased from 62 percent to at least 88 percent when those students were placed in a Catholic secondary school. William Sander of the DePaul University Department of Economics reported that non-Catholics benefit the attending a Catholic grade school.
According to the National Catholic Education Association, the percentage of minorities in Catholic schools has more than doubled since 1970-71 and now stands at more than 24 percent. In 1995-96, non-catholics represented more than 13 percent of Catholic-school enrollment. Yet, at many inner-city schools, non-Catholics comprise up to 90 percent of the student body.
* Home Schooling. The number of students being home schooled now totals 1.23 million, according to the National Home Education Research Institute (see "No Place (to Learn) Like Home School," page 12). A recent report by the institute found that home schoolers score 30 to 37 percentage points higher than their public-school counterparts in reading, math, science, language and social studies. Minorities, which comprise about 5 percent of home-schooled students, also performed much better than minority children educated in the public schools.
* Charter Schools: These are public schools designed to be free of government and teachers-union rules and regulations. The first charter-school law was enacted in 1992. Today there are approximately 500 charter schools serving more than 100,000 students in the 27 states and the District of Columbia that have such laws. Charter schools are diverse and there is significant variation in the state laws created them. Most charter schools are small. More than 60 percent have fewer than 200 students and more than 15 percent enroll fewer than 50 students.
Some are operated by for-profit companies, such as the Edison Group. To facilitate group planning, curriculum development and professional growth, the company provides every teacher a laptop computer. Teachers also are assured of an office workspace with access to fax machines, telephones and voice mail to ensure optimum communication with parents and colleagues.
The Department of Education anticipates that 40 states will have charter-school laws by the year 2000. President Clinton has set a goal of seeing 3,000 charter schools in operation by that date.
* Publicly Financed Scholarships: These programs, also known as vouchers, enable the transfer of existing tax dollars to low-income children to attend private or parochial schools. To date, two cities in the United States have such programs -- Milwaukee (nonsectarian schools only) and Cleveland. While the number of students served in both cities is small -- approximately 4,000 combined -- the potential impact of these programs is enormous.
In Milwaukee, researchers from Harvard and the University of Houston have found significant improvement in reading and math scores among the students. They noted that "if similar success could be achieved for all minority students nationwide, it could close the gap separating white and minority test scores by somewhere between one-third and more than one-half." Improved first-year test scores also were found in the Cleveland program.
The teacher unions and other parties continue to sue to try and terminate the Cleveland and Milwaukee programs. Yet, there also are court cases being waged in Vermont and Maine by the Institute for Justice that are challenging the states' exclusion of religious schools from programs that pay the tuition of rural students who do not have access to public schools in their hometowns.
In Texas, a program that would have provided vouchers to students in troubled public schools throughout the state narrowly was defeated by a tie vote in the state House of Representatives. There was better news for scholarship advocates in Arizona this year. A tax credit of up to $500 will be provided to those who want to contribute to private voucher programs in the state.
This fall, Congress is expected to consider a scholarship/voucher program for the District of Columbia. Republican Reps. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and James Talent of Missouri also have introduced the American Community Renewal Act, a measure that would provide scholarships for poor children in 100 areas across the country.
Nationwide, there also are 14,000 students in privately funded voucher programs supported by philanthropists.
* After-School Tutoring: A growing number of parents has been supplementing their children's education through these programs. Tutoring is now a $1 billion industry in the United States, serving more than 2 million children each year. Leading companies in this field include Sylvan Learning Systems, Kaplan Educational Centers, Kumon Math & Reading Centers and Language Odyssey.
* Tuition Tax Credits: This idea has been discussed since the early days of the Reagan administration. Yet, it was not until earlier this year that a major program was adopted in the United States. Following a protracted battle with the teacher unions and others in the education establishment, Republican Gov. Arne Carlson of Minnesota recently signed legislation providing a refundable tax credit of $1,000 per child (for families with incomes under $33,500) to be used for tutoring, transportation, textbooks, computers, software and learning camps. In addition, a tax deduction for private-school expenses was broadened.
The upshot of these and related developments is that the teacher unions and other beneficiaries of the public-school monopoly system slowly are coming around to support reforms in the schools. In Milwaukee, for example, the school-choice program is credited with helping spur public-school reform. John Gardner, a member of the Milwaukee Board of Education, observed in a deposition that the choice program "puts effective pressure on the Milwaukee public schools to expand, accelerate and improve reforms long deliberated and too-long postponed."
Following initial opposition, the teacher unions now support charter schools, albeit with an array of conditions that would minimize their effectiveness. In addition, Sandra Feldman, newly elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, has asked her union to champion the closing of failing public schools, a significant position change. The National Education Association has taken tentative steps to help remove problem teachers from classrooms.
There remains a long way to go to make our public schools as good as they can be. The proliferation of alternatives to conventional public schools and the changes that they have begun to bring about in the public-school arena, however, are promising developments.…