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School choice could keep kids ahead

Congress will soon decide whether to renew President Bush's signature education program No Child Left Behind, the goal of which is to bring every public school student to grade level in reading and math by 2014.

Though leaving no child behind may be a worthy goal politically and socially, some are questioning whether it is an obtainable one.

Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA, recently told The Washington Post, "There is a zero percent chance that we will ever reach a 100 percent target."

Maybe not, but the poet Robert Browning said that our reach should always exceed our grasp. By expecting more, we get more from our institutions and ourselves than if we were to "settle" for less and get less.

Still, after five years of the law, the statistics are not encouraging. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, between 1992 and 2005, there has been an increase in the percentage of 12th-grade students who read below the basic level (from 20 percent to 27 percent since the previous assessment).

Only 23 percent of 12th-graders are performing at or above math proficiency levels. As usual, the figures are worse for black and Hispanic students.

I asked U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings about this. She told me that half of the states waited until the 2005-06 school year to do an annual assessment, but that 70 percent of the nation's 90,000 public schools "are meeting the requirements of NCLB. But for 1,800, which are chronically year after year failing our kids, something more dramatic has to happen."

That "something more" has included local government takeover of some school systems. In New York and Chicago, as well as in Florida, which Spellings describes as a "leader" in education improvement, interesting things are being done. Washington, D.C., is also debating whether government should take over its poorly performing schools. Spellings said "the state of affairs" in Washington schools is "not encouraging."

Spellings cited one major reason for underperformance I had not considered. When I was in school, she noted, I was taught mostly by bright and accomplished women.

As opportunities for women in other professions opened up, many of the best and brightest teachers - and potential teachers - left or chose other professions because they paid more.

"The teachers' unions," she said, "always negotiate the same pay raises for everybody and the superstars say 'forget this, I'm going where I will be recognized as a superstar."'

Education in the United States continues to lag behind that of other nations. "When you go to China or India," Spellings said, "they don't sit around arguing about class size. They're starving to death and are motivated for education. We take all the advantages we have for granted." And while America focuses too much on nonacademic subjects - sex education, driver's education and the environment - and not enough on what employers are looking for, some other nations are graduating young people with real knowledge and skills of the kind we once produced.

A serious school-choice program, not more money to subsidize underachievement, is one answer to poor performance. Competition improves everyone's product and service. It's working in those states and localities that have managed to nominally free themselves from the teachers' unions, which seek to maintain the education monopoly for political influence.

Paying bonuses to the best teachers is another good idea. According to Spellings, her department has provided $100 million through 16 grants for that purpose. If corporations can pay their CEOs huge bonuses for failure, why shouldn't teachers be paid bonuses for achieving and surpassing education goals?

There is another point no one in government will address. It is that not all children are equally intelligent. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute raised this controversial issue recently in a series of articles he wrote for The Wall Street Journal, in which he noted that half of all children have below average intelligence and that "even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence."

Politically, that argument has no traction and so we are left with renewing No Child Left Behind, monitoring progress and paying bonuses to the best teachers. Now if we can just get real school choice added to the mix, maybe even some of the less intelligent won't be left behind and we will see even greater progress with the rest.

With what we are spending on education, the adults deserve a better product and the kids are entitled to a better education, which is their best chance at a good life.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.

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