In a 1983 report, "Nation at Risk,"i the National Commission on
Excellence in Education spoke of the rising tide of mediocrity in
America's schools. Today, d severe problems continue in large,
urban public school districts. The poor, mainly minority children
in these districts, are far likelier to exhibit low levels of
achievement and to drop out of school than children in other areas.
The two of us approach these long-standing problems from
different experiences in Democratic and Republican administrations,
but we agree on policy responses. We believe strongly not just in
national education goals but in common content standards for
learning and in tests keyed to these standards.
We believe these tests should have consequences - for
promotion, high school, graduation and even for admission to
post-secondary institutions. We endorse the efforts of many states
and localities to construct alternatives to inefficient,
centralized school bureaucracies.
Some areas have experimented with new contracting and
management arrangements. Twenty-five states have passed charter
school laws, which allow new or existing public schools to function
as independent units, free of most regulations. With President Bill
Clinton's strong leadership, federal support for charter school
startups has risen substantially.
All these efforts are moving in the right direction, but for
the poorest children - those most at risk of failure - even
stronger measures have to be tried.
Wisconsin and Ohio legislatures have enacted laws to permit
poor children in Milwaukee and Cleveland to receive means-tested
scholarships for nonpublic schools. These efforts should be
expanded into a national five-year demonstration program involving
poor children in at least 10 hard-pressed urban school districts,
with careful evaluation.
We cannot afford to write off another generation of urban
schoolchildren. To respond to this national emergency, every
reasonable approach must be tried - without delay.
Children in these school districts labor under social and
economic handicaps. They are more likely to be poor, to come from
single-parent households and to live in neighborhoods with
concentrated poverty. The poorer the students, the less likely they
are to have taken the academic courses that prepare them for higher
education and the more likely to develop problems of discipline and
But these difficulties are no excuse for what amounts to
organizational breakdown in many big-city school districts. These
bureaucratic systems are legendary for inadequate planning,
excessive numbers of non-teaching staff and mismanagement of
facilities and supplies. Too often, they become job programs for
adults at the expense of the children they are supposed to serve.
These systems, designed nearly a century ago to function like
factories and to prepare students for the industrial era, are
hopelessly backward in an age of high technology and high
performance. Because these obsolete systems are defended by a
phalanx of entrenched interests, new approaches are needed to
change incentives and redistribute power.
Here's how our plan would work:
To qualify for scholarships, students would have to be
currently enrolled in public schools and eligible for the federal
free-lunch program. …