Two Nations

The Economist, in a pre-election series, takes a look at our education system:

Some schools are thriving; others have been left behind
AMERICA’S system of education ranges from the superb to the awful. Its universities, especially at the graduate level, are the best in the world, gaining some 60% of all Nobel prizes awarded since the second world war. Its public-school system, however, is often marked by poor teaching, dilapidated buildings and violence (although the rate of violent incidents is falling, more than 5% of schoolchildren played truant last year to avoid violence at school). Official figures say that 85% of students finish high school, but the Urban Institute and other groups estimate that nearly a third of them drop out.
The result is a popular assumption that American education from kindergarten to 12th-grade high-school graduation (K-12) is in crisis. President Bush’s main remedy, passed in 2001 with bipartisan support, is the No Child Left Behind Act, a programme promising lots of federal money ($13 billion next year) to school systems that test their students and improve their performance�and sanctions for those that do not. All in all, claims the Bush team, federal spending on K-12 education will have risen by the 2005 budget by 65%, the biggest increase since the Johnson presidency in the late 1960s.
The Democrats retort that �Every Child Left Behind� would be a better name. Echoing criticisms by the teachers’ unions and many states, John Kerry calculates that the programme has been underfunded by more than $26 billion over the past four years. He would establish a National Education Trust Fund �to ensure that schools always get the funding they need�; put a �great� (and better paid) teacher in every classroom; expand after-school activities for some 3.5m children; and offer college students a fully refundable tax credit for up to $4,000 a year of college tuition (Mr Kerry says that Mr Bush reneged on a promise to increase Pell grants, which help the poor to pay for college).

What crisis?
Yet neither candidate has made education a campaign issue. Wary of offending the teachers’ unions, Mr Kerry is loth to endorse imaginative solutions, such as giving parents vouchers exchangeable for tuition for their children in either public or private schools. If Mr Bush were to emphasise No Child Left Behind, he would risk drawing attention to its deficiencies.
The voters, too, have not made education a priority in their choice of president: after all, as the Republicans point out, education is a state, local and family responsibility, not a federal obligation. Indeed, for all the federal force of No Child Left Behind, the Republican platform stresses that �since over 90% of public-school spending is state and local, it is obvious that state and local governments must assume most of the responsibility to improve the schools, and the role of the federal government must be limited as we return control to parents, teachers and local school boards.�
Latino teenagers are three times more likely than whites to drop out of school
Such devolved power can produce extreme results, such as the vote of a Georgia school board in 2002 that �creationism� as well as the theory of evolution should be taught, even though the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism, as a religious idea, could not be required in public schools. Meanwhile unhappiness with the public schools has led to interesting experiments: there are now more than 2,500 �charter� schools, publicly funded but exempt from the local regulations that apply to normal public schools; there are more than a thousand �magnet� schools, which emphasise a particular subject and attract students from outside their neighbourhoods; and there are some 2m children being �home schooled�, with their parents exercising the legal right not to send them to school at all.
Arguably, �crisis� is in any case an exaggeration: in reading tests for 4th graders, America’s children came 9th out of some 35 nations surveyed in 2001 by the Amsterdam-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. A recent OECD study reported that over 12% of American 15-year-olds have �top-level literacy skills�, a proportion exceeded by only six other countries.
The problem is that while a relatively high percentage of students does well, a high percentage also does badly. For minorities, the situation is particularly bad: Latino teenagers are twice as likely as blacks and three times more likely than whites to drop out of school. Despite long-running attempts to achieve racial balance, in the largest 100 school districts (out of more than 17,000) non-white students outnumber whites by more than two to one. One reason is that white parents have simply placed their children in private or religious schools, which together now teach some 6m children. Among those sorts of pupils were both presidential candidates.