A new school year is under way, but we already can grade the condition of American education. Let's just say no "honor student" bumper stickers will be necessary.
The typical child entering first grade this year can expect taxpayers to spend more than $100,000 on his or her education through high school. (The Department of Education reports the average annual per-pupil expenditure in U.S. public schools is now more than $10,000.) But the data show that, all too often, our six-figure investment in every child's future doesn't guarantee a quality education.
A recent national test of eighth-grade students found that fewer than one in three were proficient in reading. The Department of Education reports that at least a quarter of all students fail to earn a high-school diploma. In many of our nation's largest cities, more than half of all students drop out before graduation.
Widespread failure in our schools imposes serious costs - for students and society.
Consider how valuable having a high-school diploma is. If parents want to give their kids an extra reason to do their homework, here are a few handy facts.
Statistics show that a person who graduates from high school has better odds of living a longer and more productive life. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that a high-school graduate can expect to earn at least $200,000 more over the course of his lifetime than a dropout. An analysis published by the Teachers College of Columbia University found that the average life expectancy for high school graduates is about nine years longer than it is for dropouts.
Of course, it also matters that students actually learn while they're in school. McKinsey and Co. estimates that our failure to ensure that all children receive a quality education has created what amounts to a permanent national recession - reducing our national economic output by $400 billion to $670 billion annually, or between 3 percent and 4 percent of GDP. Moreover, since uneducated adults are more likely to become dependent on federal and state services, pervasive failure in American classrooms adds to our tax burden and ballooning government deficits.
The bottom line is that our nation's education system is in a state of crisis - and everyone has a stake in seeing that it is fixed.
Tragically, we've known about this problem for decades. And for the most part, our elected leaders, collectively, have done little to solve it. Special interest groups that benefit from the status quo - led by the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union - have succeeded in blocking most of the aggressive reforms so desperately needed to improve the quality of our schools.
Why are the special-interest groups so successful? Because their livelihoods are on the line. They recognize that they're fighting for control of a $600 billion per year enterprise. And they're willing to do whatever it takes - including hiring countless lobbyists and spending untold millions to win elections across the country - to see that their interests are protected.
Can the same be said of parents, students and taxpayers - everyone who should be concerned about the quality of our nation's schools? Have we done all that we can to convince our leaders and neighbors of the urgency of the education crisis and the need to put children's futures ahead of the special interests? You know the answers to these questions.
The simple truth is, we are responsible for the crisis in American education. We have let it happen. And millions of children will continue to pass through our nation's schools without reaching their potential so long as we, as a nation, continue to do nothing.
As kids go back to school, here's some homework for adults for the coming school year. Become informed and make your voice heard in debates about education. Learn about what we're spending on our public schools and what we're seeing in terms of student performance. Follow what is happening in the state legislature and on the local school board.
Write a letter to the editor and make your opinions known. Challenge your elected representatives and demand that they put the interests of kids' ahead of the special interest groups.
It will take hard work. But if enough people get involved and demand serious reform, we can fix the chronic problems that plague our nation's public schools. The future of millions of children - indeed, of the nation itself - depends on it.
Dan Lips is a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.