| August 5, 2013

Policymakers Should Fund What Works

“There’s a tradition in education,” former New York City schools chancellor Frank Macchiarola once observed, “that if you spend a dollar and it doesn’t work, you should spend two dollars; and not only that, you should give those two dollars to the same person who couldn’t do the job with only one.”

That tradition is alive and well in Oklahoma. Earlier this year the Tulsa World reported that national education activist Jonah Edelman, founder and chief executive officer of Stand for Children, was in Tulsa to announce that his organization is launching an affiliate in Oklahoma. “If Oklahoma wants to get results for students, it needs to fund the reforms it has already passed,” Edelman said. One example he cited was a recent reform of the Reading Sufficiency Act.

Brian Hunt, a former president of Tulsa’s school board who now serves as executive director of Stand for Children Oklahoma, agreed. He told The Oklahoman that the organization’s main goal this year is “funding the reforms that are on the books.” Various policymakers have echoed this theme—a theme which is quite frankly nothing short of absurd.

Instead of demanding even more money for the government’s monopoly system, here’s what policymakers and activists should have said to taxpayers this year:

We are profoundly sorry. Despite spending more than $8,000 per student in Oklahoma (the Census Bureau says $8,863; the NEA says $8,285), only 27 percent of our state’s fourth graders are proficient readers. In other words, there are currently more than 34,000 fourth graders in this state who are unable to read at grade level—despite the fact that we’ve already spent some $30,000 on each of their educations. It is with deep sorrow that we are forced to acknowledge that, as one critic has noted, we “spend billions of dollars a year to achieve heretofore unknown levels of semiliteracy and illiteracy among otherwise normal children.” We have failed at our most basic task, and we have damaged countless lives. What’s worse, we continue to do it year after year. We can now populate five OU football stadiums with all of the school-produced adult illiterates in this state. We are deeply sorry for the lives we have damaged, many of them unalterably.

That’s what the naked emperors should have said. Instead, here’s what they did say: “Oh, you mean you want them to read? Well now that’s gonna cost you extra.”

Legacy of Service

Unfortunately, liberals have a long history of spending money—“for the children,” of course—on ineffective government programs.

According to the Tulsa World, Mr. Edelman “said he founded Stand for Children as a way to carry on his parents’ legacy of service.” His mother, Marian Wright Edelman, is president of the Children’s Defense Fund. She is a former trustee of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was established by community organizer Saul Alinsky to train people in the tactics of revolutionary social change. She considered Alinsky “brilliant” and delivered a eulogy at his funeral. As Kay S. Hymowitz writes:

When the country debated welfare reform, [Mrs. Edelman] vigorously resisted work requirements—though she had seen with her own eyes that even the most destitute gain self-respect from hard work and orderly lives. Edelman was in high dudgeon when President Clinton, her former friend and ally, was on the verge of signing a welfare-reform bill: she called it “national child abandonment” and “a defining moral litmus test for your presidency” in an open letter published in the Washington Post. She organized the “Stand for Children” march on Washington. And when the president signed the bill and her husband [civil-rights attorney Peter Edelman, who had been the issues director for Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign] resigned from his post as assistant secretary of HHS, she called it a “moment of shame,” comparable to the worst human evils: “Never let us confuse what is legal with what is right,” she reproached. “Everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal, but it was not right.”

Indeed, that 300,000-person-strong march on Washington—which Jonah Edelman helped organize—was Stand for Children’s founding rally. So I suppose it’s not surprising that the organization would continue to push for more government spending on ineffective government programs while continuing to resist reforms that are proven to work.

What Works

One Oklahoma state lawmaker made the statement that Stand for Children Oklahoma is “going to try to take the side of what works.” But is that really true? Are they going to take the side of vouchers and tax credits, for example?

As Greg Forster pointed out last month in these pages, “the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools.”

  • Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.
  • Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.

Oddly, during his visit to Tulsa Mr. Edelman was quoted as saying, “If you look at the research on vouchers, there is no indication of student achievement progress.”

If indeed “the goal is student achievement,” as Mr. Edelman says—if the goal is to do what works—activists and policymakers should not be clamoring for something that doesn’t work: increased government spending on the monopoly system (see page 4).

Instead, they should be calling for more private-school choice.

Brandon Dutcher (M.A. in public policy, M.A. in journalism, Regent University) is vice president for policy at OCPA. He’s the editor of the book Oklahoma Policy Blueprint, which was praised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman as “thorough, well-informed, and highly sophisticated.” His articles have appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, WORLD magazine, the Tulsa World, The Oklahoman, and more than 190 newspapers throughout Oklahoma and the U.S.

Loading Next