Why Beverly Hills Needs School Vouchers

Despite the clear evidence that America's educational system is mired in failure, opposition to vouchers remains fierce.  While much of this opposition comes from quarters easily anticipated (such as teachers' unions and the prostituted politicians on their payroll), resistance to vouchers is also surprisingly strong among a much less likely demographic -- wealthy, white suburban parents.   

Many such parents feel that their own kids are doing just fine under the present system -- because at their schools, there are no gangs, murders, or graffiti.  Their kids get good grades, and can get into college. Also, these parents are content to see poorer folk trapped in wretched urban schools, since it gives their children a decisive competitive edge over the poor children, with whom they suppose their children are in competition.

In short, far too many suburban parents are mired in a delusional complacency.

Two of the brightest researchers into America's educational failures are Jay P. Greene and Josh McGee.  They have issued a new report aimed at kicking the complacent stuffing out of these selfish, smug and self-satisfied suburbanites.

Greene and McGee start by noting something obvious, but obviously not well-understood by complacent suburbanites: America's best students are competing not with America's worst students, but -- in a highly globalized economy -- against the best students in Europe and Asia.  So if you want to understand how well your kid is really doing, you need to compare him or her to how well kids are doing in developed nations around the world.

To do this, the authors quite cleverly developed a Global Report Card.  This metric allows them to compare academic achievement from the years 2004 to 2007 for math and reading in a group of 25 nations, all of which are in a large number of areas our peers and competitors.  They report the results in terms of percentiles.  So a percentile of 60 for a district means that an average kid in that district is performing better than 59.9% of students internationally.

The authors wisely focus on math, which is the crucial skill.  To begin with, it provides a more accurate comparison with students in other cultures (since languages vary in the complexity of their grammars and the degree to which their alphabets are phonetic).  Moreover -- with all due respect to my fellow humanistic professors! -- it is the skill most correlated with economic growth.

The results are stunning, and something that ought to smack supercilious suburbanites upside their heads.

Consider the deliciously ironic example of Beverly Hills, home to so many of America's obnoxious Marxist millionaire movie stars.  It is one of those tony enclaves the Lamborghini liberals live in to avoid the other urban areas that their "progressive" policies have destroyed.  Beverly Hills has a median household income of over $102,000 and is roughly 85% white, 7% Asian, 5% Hispanic, and 2% black.  Property values run exceedingly high, so the property taxes supporting the school system are lavish.  So we can rule out this being a case of "incompetent" minority parents ruining a school system -- which is the usual teacher union excuse for public school failure.

But the actual performance of the Beverly Hills Unified School District is quite mediocre.  It is at only the 53rd percentile compared to the international group of schools -- barely above average internationally.  As the authors cheekily note, the citizens of Beverly Hills are blinded to this mediocrity by the fact that their students average at the 76th percentile on California's own tests.  But this is comparing their students only to all other California students, who are the products of wretchedly bad systems (such as LA Unified, with a math average at the 20th percentile internationally).  And it includes inner-city schools in which half or more of the students drop out.  If Beverly Hills were in Canada, its system would be at the 46th percentile, and in Singapore, it would be at a risible 34th percentile.

The point here is one that the deluded parents of Beverly Hills just don't get: in this global economy, their kids will be competing not with the LA Unified dropouts, but with the best graduates of Canada and Singapore (and the other highly industrialized countries).  To use the verbiage the famous (albeit fictitious) denizen of Beverly Hills High used in the movie of the same name some years back, the parents of Beverly Hills are simply...clueless.

Moreover, the point is entirely general.  Below is a table of some of the wealthiest (and whitest!) school districts in the county, along with their international math rankings on the Greene/McGee scorecard.

American Public School District, State

International Percentile Ranking in Math

Lower Merion, PA

66th

Palo Alto, CA

64th

Plano, TX

64th

Ladue, MO

62nd

Grosse Point, MI

56th

Montgomery County, MD

50th

Shaker Heights, OH

50th

Fairfax, VA

49th

Evanston, IL

48th

White Plains, NY (in Westchester County!)

39th

The authors do note that a few American school districts can hold their own internationally.  For example, Pelham, MA ranks 95th on the international math rankings report card the authors devised.

But in the main, our best schools are overwhelmingly mediocre by international comparison.  Only 6% of the nearly 14,000 American public school districts had average student math achievement that would put them in the top third of the comparison group of countries.

And what of the worst American schools?  None of the largest American public school districts breaks even the 50th percentile.  And the biggest districts are the worst, as shown in the table below.

American Public School District, State

International Percentile Ranking in Math

Miami-Dade, FL

33rd

New York City, NY

32nd

Atlanta, GA

23rd

Chicago, IL

21st

Los Angeles, CA

20th

Baltimore, MD

19th

Cleveland, OH

18th

Milwaukee, WI

16th

Detroit, MI

12th

Washington, D.C.

10th

In truth, what Greene and McGee show (and what confirms earlier work, for example, by Eric Hanushek) is simply stunning.  It is that, in truth, our "best" (i.e., our wealthiest) schools -- for which we taxpayers pay more than does any other nation on Earth -- is collectively a cesspool of mediocrity.  And our worst schools -- the ones to which we consign the poor and lower-middle-class students -- are nothing short of a crime against humanity.

We have known this now for over thirty years, since the publication of the alarming report "A Nation at Risk" back in 1987.  We are now beginning to pay the economic price for failing to reform this dysfunctional institution.  And the price will be a steep one, indeed.

Philosopher Gary Jason is a senior editor for Liberty and the author of the forthcoming book Dangerous Thoughts.

Despite the clear evidence that America's educational system is mired in failure, opposition to vouchers remains fierce.  While much of this opposition comes from quarters easily anticipated (such as teachers' unions and the prostituted politicians on their payroll), resistance to vouchers is also surprisingly strong among a much less likely demographic -- wealthy, white suburban parents.   

Many such parents feel that their own kids are doing just fine under the present system -- because at their schools, there are no gangs, murders, or graffiti.  Their kids get good grades, and can get into college. Also, these parents are content to see poorer folk trapped in wretched urban schools, since it gives their children a decisive competitive edge over the poor children, with whom they suppose their children are in competition.

In short, far too many suburban parents are mired in a delusional complacency.

Two of the brightest researchers into America's educational failures are Jay P. Greene and Josh McGee.  They have issued a new report aimed at kicking the complacent stuffing out of these selfish, smug and self-satisfied suburbanites.

Greene and McGee start by noting something obvious, but obviously not well-understood by complacent suburbanites: America's best students are competing not with America's worst students, but -- in a highly globalized economy -- against the best students in Europe and Asia.  So if you want to understand how well your kid is really doing, you need to compare him or her to how well kids are doing in developed nations around the world.

To do this, the authors quite cleverly developed a Global Report Card.  This metric allows them to compare academic achievement from the years 2004 to 2007 for math and reading in a group of 25 nations, all of which are in a large number of areas our peers and competitors.  They report the results in terms of percentiles.  So a percentile of 60 for a district means that an average kid in that district is performing better than 59.9% of students internationally.

The authors wisely focus on math, which is the crucial skill.  To begin with, it provides a more accurate comparison with students in other cultures (since languages vary in the complexity of their grammars and the degree to which their alphabets are phonetic).  Moreover -- with all due respect to my fellow humanistic professors! -- it is the skill most correlated with economic growth.

The results are stunning, and something that ought to smack supercilious suburbanites upside their heads.

Consider the deliciously ironic example of Beverly Hills, home to so many of America's obnoxious Marxist millionaire movie stars.  It is one of those tony enclaves the Lamborghini liberals live in to avoid the other urban areas that their "progressive" policies have destroyed.  Beverly Hills has a median household income of over $102,000 and is roughly 85% white, 7% Asian, 5% Hispanic, and 2% black.  Property values run exceedingly high, so the property taxes supporting the school system are lavish.  So we can rule out this being a case of "incompetent" minority parents ruining a school system -- which is the usual teacher union excuse for public school failure.

But the actual performance of the Beverly Hills Unified School District is quite mediocre.  It is at only the 53rd percentile compared to the international group of schools -- barely above average internationally.  As the authors cheekily note, the citizens of Beverly Hills are blinded to this mediocrity by the fact that their students average at the 76th percentile on California's own tests.  But this is comparing their students only to all other California students, who are the products of wretchedly bad systems (such as LA Unified, with a math average at the 20th percentile internationally).  And it includes inner-city schools in which half or more of the students drop out.  If Beverly Hills were in Canada, its system would be at the 46th percentile, and in Singapore, it would be at a risible 34th percentile.

The point here is one that the deluded parents of Beverly Hills just don't get: in this global economy, their kids will be competing not with the LA Unified dropouts, but with the best graduates of Canada and Singapore (and the other highly industrialized countries).  To use the verbiage the famous (albeit fictitious) denizen of Beverly Hills High used in the movie of the same name some years back, the parents of Beverly Hills are simply...clueless.

Moreover, the point is entirely general.  Below is a table of some of the wealthiest (and whitest!) school districts in the county, along with their international math rankings on the Greene/McGee scorecard.

American Public School District, State

International Percentile Ranking in Math

Lower Merion, PA

66th

Palo Alto, CA

64th

Plano, TX

64th

Ladue, MO

62nd

Grosse Point, MI

56th

Montgomery County, MD

50th

Shaker Heights, OH

50th

Fairfax, VA

49th

Evanston, IL

48th

White Plains, NY (in Westchester County!)

39th

The authors do note that a few American school districts can hold their own internationally.  For example, Pelham, MA ranks 95th on the international math rankings report card the authors devised.

But in the main, our best schools are overwhelmingly mediocre by international comparison.  Only 6% of the nearly 14,000 American public school districts had average student math achievement that would put them in the top third of the comparison group of countries.

And what of the worst American schools?  None of the largest American public school districts breaks even the 50th percentile.  And the biggest districts are the worst, as shown in the table below.

American Public School District, State

International Percentile Ranking in Math

Miami-Dade, FL

33rd

New York City, NY

32nd

Atlanta, GA

23rd

Chicago, IL

21st

Los Angeles, CA

20th

Baltimore, MD

19th

Cleveland, OH

18th

Milwaukee, WI

16th

Detroit, MI

12th

Washington, D.C.

10th

In truth, what Greene and McGee show (and what confirms earlier work, for example, by Eric Hanushek) is simply stunning.  It is that, in truth, our "best" (i.e., our wealthiest) schools -- for which we taxpayers pay more than does any other nation on Earth -- is collectively a cesspool of mediocrity.  And our worst schools -- the ones to which we consign the poor and lower-middle-class students -- are nothing short of a crime against humanity.

We have known this now for over thirty years, since the publication of the alarming report "A Nation at Risk" back in 1987.  We are now beginning to pay the economic price for failing to reform this dysfunctional institution.  And the price will be a steep one, indeed.

Philosopher Gary Jason is a senior editor for Liberty and the author of the forthcoming book Dangerous Thoughts.