Educated Children Are Successful Children

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How fortuitous that New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan was one of the honorees at the annual Manhattan Institute Alexander Hamilton Dinner in New York City on Monday night.

After all, that same day it was announced that the Archdiocese of New York and 42 other Catholic institutions were suing the Obama administration for requiring employers to cover contraceptive services in health insurance offered under the new healthcare law.

The news sparked expectations that the Cardinal would discuss the litigation. In fact, his remarks were focused elsewhere, on school choice, also politically sensitive, and on the opportunities that low-income children have in Catholic schools.

The Archdiocese of New York oversees 196 elementary schools with 51,000 elementary and special education students, and 50 high schools with 26,500 students. Of the high school students, 49 percent are white, 28 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are African American, and 9 percent are Asian or other races.

This year over 2 million students are enrolled in 6,800 Catholic schools nationwide, representing 43 percent of all private school enrollment.

His Eminence cited society's problems of crime, unemployment, homelessness, and despair, and pointed to Catholic schools as "the one gritty institution that has shown to be effective in ameliorating these ills." Although his schools have to struggle for every dime, he said, "We do it twice as good at half the price."

The Cardinal has reason to boast. The National Catholic Educational Association reports that Catholic schools had in 2011 a 99 percent graduation rate, and 85 percent of graduates went on to college. This includes children from impoverished backgrounds who were lucky enough to have parents who made education a priority, and the children of college graduates, who typically are college-bound.

In contrast, the graduation rate for public school children who started high school in 2006 in New York City was 61 percent in 2010, the latest data available. Nationwide, it was 75 percent. Data for 2011 will be announced next month.

Catholic schools have a slightly higher graduation rate than other private schools, but a significantly higher percentage of their graduates attend college. On average, 61 percent of students who went to "other religious" schools went on to college, as did 57 percent of students who attended private nonsectarian schools, compared to 85 percent of Catholic high school graduates.

The need for education reform was reiterated on Wednesday by Governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, who announced his support of school choice before a group of Hispanic leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Romney said, "Imagine if your enterprise had a 25 percent to 50 percent failure rate in meeting its primary goal. You would consider that a crisis. You would make changes, and fast. Because if you didn't, you'd go out of business. But America's public education establishment shows no sense of urgency. Instead, there is a fierce determination to keep things the way they are."

Of course, any comparison of parochial and other private schools with public schools is skewed, because the populations of private schools are self-selected, children whose parents choose to send them there. Moreover, private schools can dismiss pupils who misbehave or who do poorly academically. Public schools have far less freedom to cull out troublemakers and slackers.

But students from low-income families do far better in Catholic schools than public schools.

A Loyola Marymount University School of Education study by Ignacio Higareda found that at-risk inner city Los Angeles students in parochial schools far outperformed their peers at public schools in terms of SAT scores, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment rates. Catholic schools were able to achieve a lower per pupil cost because they operated smaller schools, enabling them to more quickly identify problems. According to the study, "These smaller schools create a personalized environment where Catholic educators know how to help their students succeed on an individual basis."

The academic success of parochial and other private schools is noteworthy for several reasons, some economic.

Upward economic mobility is now more strongly tied to the quality and quantity of Americans' education than at any time in history. While there have been large increases in the returns to education and increases for spending for public education, many segments of American society still have low academic achievement.

Schools are failing to give children the education they need. American children lag behind their international counterparts on many standardized tests. American children attend school for fewer hours than children in many other industrialized countries and have longer summer vacations. When in school, they spend more time on sports, and on non-academic subjects such as women's history month, assemblies, current events, and sex education.

The key to economic mobility is to improve students' academic performance, both in elementary and secondary school, so that they can embark upon and complete rigorous high-return college programs, or even vocationally-oriented community college credentials.

With the importance of education to economic mobility, and the track record of Catholic and other parochial schools, why don't more parents send children to schools of their choice? One reason is that they cannot afford to do so. Even though Catholic schools are less expensive than most other private schools, tuition is still beyond the financial reach of many parents.

States are making incremental progress to widen opportunities for school choice. Last month, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal signed into law an expansion of school vouchers, so that more than half of Louisiana children will qualify. Under Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, also honored at the Manhattan Institute dinner, more than half of Hoosier schoolchildren were permitted to take their taxpayer dollars in the 2011-2012 school year to attend private schools.

However, vouchers are opposed by public school teachers' unions, which spend large sums lobbying against school choice. The National Education Association, the largest teachers' union with 3 million members, makes the Educational Case Against Vouchers, the Social Case Against Vouchers, and the Legal Case Against Vouchers on its Web site. The same message is heard from the American Federation of Teachers, with its 1.5 million members.

Required filings of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers with the U.S. Department of Labor reveal that these unions spent at least $127 million in 2011 on political activities and lobbying, and $110 million on contributions, gifts, and grants.

Some union officials are well paid to protect teachers' interests. NEA president Dennis Van Roekel received 2011 compensation of $460,000, and vice president Lily Eskelsen received $372,000. Union bosses are enriching themselves from taxpayer dollars, through union dues extracted from teachers' paychecks.

Teachers' unions have consistently used their power to protect poorly-performing teachers and schools, to the detriment of children's education. They're against merit pay, and they make it difficult to fire incompetent teachers. More importantly, they're against allowing parents to choose the best schools for their children.

Cardinal Dolan emphasized that Catholic school graduates not only attain academic and economic heights far beyond their peers, but also that they have a moral compass. Catholic school graduates are more likely to marry and to become productive members of society.

In an increasingly competitive global economy, America sputters. We spend ever more on public education, and our students achieve less and less. Complacent with 2 percent growth, we lower our expectations while our economic competitors strive for 10 percent growth. On our current path, our destiny is that of second-rate economy filled with Americans unaware of missed potential.

Cardinal Dolan has a different view of the future of America. Give children a structure for learning, and they can and will succeed. With successful children, America will prosper. If you have any doubts, just ask Cardinal Dolan.


Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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