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As graduation season approaches in America, keynote speakers across the land will be holding forth on how education is the key to the future.  Forget the fact that this year’s high school and college graduates will be lucky to find jobs in food service.  What kind of educations are we giving them in the first place?

Since the beginning of the Bush administration in 2001 and continuing through the Obama years America has prioritized the education of its best and brightest (and richest) while leaving the rest of the country to rot.

Teacher pay has stagnated.  Class sizes are highest where they need to be lowest.  Education is being privatized.  And worst off all, local autonomy and local standards are being replaced by a new, narrowly-defined national curriculum.

Keeping schools in the hands of local school boards and parent-teacher organizations should be an issue that left and right can agree on.

The problem is that the left wants to protect children and teachers from oppressive local forces while the right wants to “protect” (if that is the word) local property owners from having to pay school taxes.

The result has been the worst possible outcome: the federalization of the school curriculum combined with the localization of school budgets.  Children in poor school districts are protected from school prayers but get untrained “alternate route” teachers.  Children in rich districts get all the perqs that help them get high scores on irrelevant but nonetheless high stakes exams.

As a result, instead of no child left behind we have every child left behind — just some left more behind than others.

We could learn a thing or two from a country that consistently beats us on all those tests we seem to care so much about: Finland.  Finland has local control with national funding.  The poorer the district, the greater the national funding.  Finnish education encourages local experimentation by freeing local districts to focus on education rather than fundraising.

National tests?  Not until age 18.  Art, music, and foreign languages?  Yes, yes, and several.  Lots of immigrants in one school?  Reduce the class size to four.  Performance outcomes at the end of high school?  Top of the world in math, science, and reading.

Oh, and universities?  Free.

Finland is not richer than the United States.  Its people are not intrinsically smarter or better at school.  Finland’s success comes from the simple formula of having more teachers and giving them more autonomy.

More fundamentally, Finland is willing to pay for all of its children to have a fulfilling twelve years of education.  We are not.  Our national priority is to put our money into things, not people.  Private planes for CEOs?  Sure.  More teachers for elementary schools?  Forget it.

So long as Americans prefer low taxes for the rich to good schools for the poor, American education will remain sub-standard.  Finland’s top income tax rate?  Around 55% (depending on local taxes).  America’s?  35% or a little more (depending on local taxes).  Finland’s top capital gains tax rate?  32%.  America’s?  15%.

Many Americans would choose to keep taxes on the rich low instead of spending the money to make sure that no child is left behind.  But we should not mistake a choice for a necessity.  Testing students will not magically make our children better educated.  Giving students more, more independent, and better-resourced teachers will make our children better educated.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, nor even a reduced-price lunch, when it comes to educating our children.  As with everything else, with education you get what you pay for.  Until our schools are as important to us as our cars, computers, and televisions, we’ll have cut-rate schools.  It really is that simple.

Salvatore Babones

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