“You’d better cut the pizza in four pieces, because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.” – Yogi Berra

Under the headline “Does it Matter if it’s Real?” the front page of USA Today this past weekend sums up the popular media version of current events, from Beyoncé lip-synching to Lance Armstrong’s doping to Manti Te’o, the apparently massively gullible Hawaiian football sensation who is a graduate of Punahou (President Barack Obama’s high school alma mater) and is now a senior at the University of Notre Dame. (Just to be clear, the president, the entertainment and sports worlds and even state legislatures can fashion their own answers to the newspaper’s rhetorical question.  In the think tank world, it does matter.)

Now that Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and President Obama have retired to their respective corners to lip-synch Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” following the president’s Second Inaugural Address, it seems an appropriate occasion to remind everybody that School Choice Week is upon us.  Educational reform is one of the few truly bipartisan efforts to produce a better America.  It’s real and it matters.  The money spent on education in this country is also real, but it turns out that it doesn’t matter as much as some other factors.

There is room to argue that reform of a system that hasn’t been remodeled in a century and a half is hardly worthy of the effort;  that the system should be blown up and we should start over based on what we now know but didn’t when public schooling was fashioned on the industrial model. At the time, the most important thing we thought kids had in common was their age (as creativity expert Sir Ken Robertson puts it, “their date of manufacture.”)  These serious conversations about inputs and outputs can be informed by what we have learned about kids’ brains, technology and teachers unions. But this argument is for another column and another day.

It is quite possible to lose track of the few trends that augur well for the nation with all of the news poured out over us on a daily basis, but school choice is a movement that has produced some real world victories for the kids fortunate enough to be included.  A celebration and status report will – I wish I could say – “engulf” the nation this week, where 3,000 events are planned around the country.  Hopefully it will at least be a part of the news coverage showing tens of thousands of parents and children enthusiastically participating.

Roughly 70% of the American people support charter schools as one vehicle of school reform offering to improve our kids’ chances to engage a future and an economy that we can barely fathom with the pace of change around us.  A good teacher can be found in any system, but charter schools at least let parents get around a few union work rules and some administrative padding.  The curriculum can be modified as the environment does.

Enabled by legislation that originally was passed in Minnesota more than two decades ago, and is now in place in 41 states and the District of Columbia, there are today more than two million children enrolled in 5,600 American charter schools.  And I can tell you first-hand that the parents who have this opportunity are inexpressibly grateful to be on this side of what is probably the most significant manifestation of the “inequality gap” in these United States.

Indiana is celebrating the $200 million of public money it saved the first year of its school choice program, as well as the tripling of students to about 9,300  who were able to take advantage of comparatively new Choice Scholarship Program in the state this year.  About 55% of the students in this very practical state now are eligible for scholarship assistance.

School choice legislation was defeated a couple of years ago in my home state of Ohio, which would have allowed about 85% of our K-12 students some choices in where they go to school.  Currently, the number in Ohio is less than 25% through four different programs enacted in different legislative sessions. If you don’t have special needs, autism or live in Cleveland, you’re stuck in a system where we devote “significantly” higher fractions of our operating budgets to non-teaching personnel than practically every other country on earth.  In one recent study, a 17% increase of students over two decades was matched by a 46% increase in staff who aren’t teaching.

There is little evidence that, in the aggregate, student achievement has improved with this dramatic rise in staffing.  Nobel laureate James Heckman has shown that graduation rates peaked in the early 1970s, for instance.

This week, a sister public policy organization, the Heartland Institute, is featuring an address by Ember Reichgott Junge, a former state senator who managed against steep odds to get the original enabling legislation passed in Minnesota.  Minnesota is mostly a progressive state with a lot of pride and famous institutions built to compete at the highest level, like the Mayo Clinic, and companies like General Mills, 3M, Buffalo Wild Wings, Target, Best Buy and UnitedHealth Group.

Minnesota’s most current numbers indicate that 225,762 taxpayers a year take advantage of the deduction available to lower-income families, and around 60,000 more file for the tax credit, which covers only 3% of the total per-student spending in the state.

Progress is slow, but demonstrable.  Perhaps it would be more helpful if more adults interacted with their children and their friends’ children as though education is not just important, but interesting to them.

President Abraham Lincoln has been resurrected cinematically to contest the movie industry awards and to remind us how to view certain challenges weighing upon our nation.  In 1862, when addressing the Congress, Lincoln remarked, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion…We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save the country.”

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