By Robert Enlow
Tomorrow in Philadelphia, two of politics' most interesting personalities - the Rev. Al Sharpton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - are expected to join Education Secretary Arne Duncan in kicking off a tour of America's urban public schools. Sharpton and Gingrich have said they intend to draw attention to persistent problems and promising remedies in education.
In putting the spotlight on fixing education, this odd couple plus one should focus on reforms that actually have a shot at helping kids. The trio should use its bipartisan bully pulpit to focus on the one reform that can truly shake up public education: school choice.
Since "A Nation at Risk," the landmark 1983 report to Ronald Reagan on the state of American education, the United States has continued to see high rates of adult illiteracy, a lack of educational progress relative to other nations, and a remarkable increase in taxpayer funding for public schools. From 1970 to 2003, average per-student spending in American schools soared 128 percent, yet student achievement did not rise in tandem. Despite huge increases in spending, 17-year-olds' performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress did not improve during that period.
Children stuck in schools with a high incidence of violence and generations of academic failure don't have years to wait for a rescue mission, and that includes Philadelphia's. Each year lost is another class drifting at sea - dropouts who wind up with lower incomes, early pregnancies, drug and alcohol addictions, and prison sentences. Educators have a moral obligation to offer children hope. They must provide an education that will give them a shot at a job and earning potential.
Serious, lasting changes in education can be brought about by the mere threat of competition, which puts the focus on the real consumers: parents and their children.
We saw it beginning in the late 1990s, when a school-voucher program was instituted for children in failing public schools in Florida. Principals and superintendents reacted by offering school on Saturdays, tutorial programs, and home visits, all in an effort to do anything they could to help children learn. And it worked: Student achievement improved.
Here in Pennsylvania, Democrats and Republicans have worked together in recent years to give children more educational choices. For example, in 2007, Gov. Rendell signed legislation expanding a state tax credit for businesses that want to donate to scholarship organizations or public-school improvement projects.
Because of the expansion of the program, 44,000 students a year get scholarships to attend private schools that work better for them. The corporate tax break is capped at $75 million a year, and hundreds of Pennsylvania business are taking advantage of it to support school choice and public schools at the same time.
Donations to private scholarship organizations are putting competitive pressure on some school districts that are losing pupils. The schools are paying attention to their lost customers and making improvements.
Unfortunately, due to faltering state revenues and the impact of the recession, officials are considering reducing the size of the tax credit this year. They may shift some of the tax credits to the film industry. That's a move that parents and political leaders from both sides of the aisle should view as a rudimentary mistake.
But the Sharpton-Gingrich-Duncan tour illustrates just how far we've come. We can no longer deny that bad public schools are bad for our children and their future. We have a liberal civil-rights leader, the onetime leader of a conservative political movement, and the secretary of education joining hands to take a closer look at what might move America past its long-standing inertia on this issue.
This moment is too important for feel-good photo opportunities and congratulatory press conferences about so-called reforms that just tinker around the edges. President Obama and Democrats have been arguing that competition is the key to a successful health-insurance model in America. Competition will also improve public schools. Give parents their own money - whether through tax-credit scholarships, such as in Pennsylvania, or voucher programs, such as in Washington - and watch skeptics embrace hope and change for the next generation of inner-city schoolchildren.