Choice and competition in the name of national security

The authors of the Council on Foreign Relations’ report on US education reform and national security compared the sweep of their work with 1983’s A Nation at Risk, updating the “rising tide of mediocrity” with 21st century warnings of America’s weakened competitiveness. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll be talking about the Council’s recommendations 30 years from now, but there is much to this report that makes it one of the boldest statements on our progress toward higher educational standards and enhanced school choice.

The recommendations are not groundbreaking. The task force, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York schools chancellor Joel Klein, is urging the expansion of Common Core standards and the spread of more choice and competition

measures that are already driving our public debates. But the recommendations are no less impressive for the luminaries behind them. Klein, for one, called school choice a “uniquely American approach” and led a task force that insisted that school vouchers should be in our public policy toolkits.
The report signals that America’s poor educational outcomes are a threat to national security in addition to its competitiveness in a global economy.

What sets the report apart is its signal that America’s poor educational outcomes are a threat to national security in addition to its competitiveness in a global economy. Three of four kids are unqualified for military service either because they’re inadequately educated, they’re physically unfit or they have criminal backgrounds, the task force concluded. Too many young people are unemployable in an economy that relies on brainpower and human capital. “Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy,” the report states.

The task force lays blame at the “innovation deficit” and the very structure of an ailing system of public education that is turning the American Dream into “an American memory.” Primary and secondary schools in the United States are simply unorganized to promote competition, choice and innovation, values prized in nearly every other sector in American life. Choice largely is available to families with the financial means to opt out of public schooling, a condition that perpetuates what the task force calls “the worst form of inequality.” That’s why the report appropriately makes room for voucher programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship in addition to greater public school choice.

But a call for enhanced choice and competition should have come with an insistence that quality and transparency must greet the student in either public or private school. While arguing for the expansion of Common Core State Standards and meaningful assessments, the task force recommended a “national security readiness audit” that would be publicized to show whether schools are teaching students what they need to learn. The model voucher programs for the task force fall short on this measure of accountability. If private schools want to answer this call, they should embrace these standards as well.

The dissents to the findings have been predictable, but notable in that some are coming from some of the task force members themselves, namely American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. The union leader wrote in a dissent appended to the report that the recommended expansion of charter school and voucher programs “undermine this vital institution” of public education, and that competition hasn’t worked “in a scalable and sustainable way.” Maybe it would if she stepped aside and allowed statehouses to experiment with some of these bolder suggestions smartly.

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