(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Obama administration supported and encouraged promising efforts to improve public schools, and it made an important difference in districts across the country. Yet education is one of the few areas of Obama’s legacy that former Vice President Joe Biden has been slow to embrace. There is still time for that to change, and it should.
Improving American schools should be a top priority for the whole nation. Nothing matters as much for future prosperity and social justice. In this, the primary responsibility rests with states and cities, but the federal government can help. And the record shows that progress is achievable. It demands, among other things, teachers that are better paid and better trained. But it also requires political leaders who pay more attention to students’ needs and less to teachers’ unions.
The need for reform is clear — and lack of money, overall, is not the main impediment. Per-pupil spending in the U.S. is among the highest in the world, but the country is getting a very poor return. According to the most recent assessment, two-thirds of eighth graders fail to meet proficiency standards in math and reading.
School districts that have coupled higher pay with greater accountability for results have seen sustained improvement. But the unions resist greater accountability. High-quality charter schools have also yielded good results — not only in those schools, but in traditional public schools as well, by exerting pressure to do better. The unions don’t like charters, either.
Granted, judging the success of charter schools is hard, because many other factors affect student outcomes. But the best available studies, comparing matched sets of students, show that urban charter schools get better results on average in math and reading than their traditional counterparts. It’s important to build on these efforts, while taking care that reforms don’t put traditional public schools under greater financial stress.
In a new budget proposal, House Democrats proposed a 9% cut in charter-school funding. Biden has called for a ban on federal funding of for-profit charter schools, but has said nothing about charters operated by nonprofits (the great majority). That silence gives cause for concern.
At a recent forum with the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, Biden pledged to create a “teacher-oriented” Department of Education. How about a student-oriented Department of Education?
Biden’s education plan calls for higher spending on teacher recruitment, compensation and professional development, with new incentives for teachers to pursue certifications in high-need subjects. That’s good. Efforts to reward and elevate the teaching profession are well worth pursuing. But they should go hand in hand with stronger accountability and a broadening of opportunities especially for minority and low-income students — the ones who’ve gained most from the expansion of charter schools.
Right now, the most pressing issue is how to reopen schools this fall. Getting schools up and running again is urgent. As many parents can attest, distance learning hasn’t worked well. But it has to be done safely. President Trump is wrong to press governors to resume in-person classes for all regardless of local conditions. The unions are right to call first for new funding, so that training and equipment can be provided to protect teachers, staff and students. Senators Chuck Schumer and Patty Murray have proposed $175 billion for K-12 schools. New federal funding should be conditioned on states not slashing their own education budgets.
With the Covid-19 emergency far from overcome, building a more equitable and effective public-school system has rarely been so challenging — or more critical for the country’s future.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.