When children don’t matter

Patrick Gibbons

When your car breaks down, you can take it to a knowledgeable mechanic or even pick up a how-to guide and repair it yourself. But when political or economic systems are the problem, no similarly easy solutions exist.

What we do have, however, are how-not-to states.

Like Michigan.

According to the American Legislative Exchange Council report, "Rich States, Poor States," Michigan's recent personal income growth ranks lowest in the country, while its tax rates are some of the highest. Michigan's corporate income tax, for example, is among the 10 highest of all states, and its sales and personal income taxes rank among the 20 highest.

Perhaps the brightest spot for the people of Michigan is that they can move to other states, nearly all of which offer better tax, business and job climates. Indeed, between 1998 and 2007 almost 420,000 more people fled Michigan than moved to it.

Given the situation, it should come as no surprise that Detroit's public school system, as the Wall Street Journal reported last month, has been contemplating filing bankruptcy. Called a "national disgrace" by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the district operates much like the state of Michigan and Detroit's auto Big Three: It insists on offering people a high-cost, subpar product in the face of superior alternatives offered elsewhere.

Since 2001, enrollment has fallen nearly 50 percent, while the district's financial resources plunged from a surplus of $102 million in FY 2002 to a deficit of nearly $300 million in FY 2009. This autumn, the district will have 172 schools open and about another 100 schools sitting vacant. Corruption within the district abounds, including 257 "ghost employees" (people who receive a salary even though nobody can publicly identify who they are) and — as revealed by an FBI probe — a theft of nearly $400,000 by two employees.

The problems, however, go beyond mere corruption or fiscal mismanagement. The school district has an abysmal 58 percent graduation rate and some of the lowest test scores in the nation. 

"I am extraordinarily concerned about the poor quality of education, quite frankly, [that] the children of Detroit are receiving," said Duncan.

Only a few options are available to students suffering in the Detroit public school system. Some inner-city kids can escape the poorly performing schools through the open-enrollment laws and local charter schools. Although vouchers and tax credits would help even more students escape bad schools, they're not available. Powerful teacher unions simply do not allow the competition.

While Duncan is ambivalent about vouchers, he recognizes that local policymakers have been sacrificing the educational needs of children to adults' appetites for jobs: "There have been lots of adult issues and politics that I think have really done our children of Detroit a great disservice," he said.

Unfortunately, Detroit's pattern is part of a national epidemic.

Here in Nevada, the poorly performing Washoe County and Clark County school districts employ one adult for every eight to nine students enrolled, just one piece of evidence that Nevada's state and local governments are putting adults ahead of children. For years, policymakers and educators have been openly hostile to charter schools, as well as voucher or tax-credit options for parents and students. The only reform to move forward was the 2007 law mandating empowerment schools in Clark and Washoe counties. Yet both the Washoe County School District and the state Department of Education subsequently ignored the law — and, so far, have gotten away with it.

The ill effects of subverting the interests of children to those of adults can also be seen in test results and graduation rates. Although Nevada spends more than 150 percent more money per pupil today than in 1960, the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics put Nevada's graduation rate at 55.8 percent — not only lower than Michigan's, but lowest in the nation.

Nevada's math and reading scores rank in the bottom 10, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and even the state's college-bound seniors perform below average: While the average student in the U.S. scores a combined 1017 points on the SAT for reading and math, the average Nevada student scores 1004, the College Board reports.

Nevertheless, during the 2009 Legislative Session, Nevada lawmakers refused to pass any significant reforms. Almost casually, they condemned Silver State students to continue suffering damage from the current system for at least another two years.

Essentially, most Nevada children are being sacrificed to the public school monopoly.

It is unfortunate, and entirely unnecessary.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.