This week marks the 65th anniversary of the Servicemembers’ Readjustment Act of 1944, today known as known as the Montgomery G.I. Bill of Rights. By putting a college education within reach of veterans, the G.I. Bill is credited with growing the American middle class and ushering in one of the longest economic expansions in U.S. history. Government analyses also indicate that for every $1 spent on the G.I. Bill, the country receives between $5 and $12 in new economic activity and tax revenue.
Given its success, isn’t it time to expand the G.I. Bill concept to K-12 students?
American higher education has long been the envy of the world, in large part because funding through programs such as the G.I. bill follows students to the colleges and universities of their choice. Those institutions, in turn, must compete to attract and retain students. Yet the U.S. has lost its international dominance in higher education in recent years, and President Obama wants to change all that.
By 2020, he vowed, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” To help improve college access, the war spending bill includes an expansion of the G.I. Bill totaling $164 billion over the next 10 years. The stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) and the President’s budget also allocate approximately $200 billion in Pell Grant scholarships and college tax credits over the next decade. All that spending, unfortunately, does little to expand access to college if after 12 years students aren’t prepared for college.
A recent study from McKinsey & Co., for example, found that “lagging achievement in the United States is not merely an issue for poor children attending schools in poor neighborhoods; instead, it affects most children in most schools.” Moreover, the report calls chronic K-12 achievement gaps between American students and their international peers, along with achievement gaps among low-income, Hispanic and African-American students, “the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.” The study estimates the cost to U.S. GDP of not closing those gaps ranges from $310 billion up to $2.3 trillion, about $7,500 per American.
So why not model K-12 reforms after successful higher education programs such as the G.I. Bill that fund students directly through grants and scholarships? One such reform is the five-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which awards private school scholarships to 1,700 low-income D.C. public school children each year — for less than half the cost of keeping them in the public system, $12 million compared to about $27 million annually based on the latest Department of Education figures. According to the official government evaluation, students using Opportunity Scholarships for three years now perform a half grade ahead of their public-school counterparts in reading. Students using them longer perform more than two grades ahead in reading.
In his first major address on education this March, the president promised his administration would be guided by policy evidence, not politics. “It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative,” he said, “but whether it works.” The president, however, has not only opposed K-12 ideas that work. He actually helped kill the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program just one day after his “whether it works” declaration. Part of the omnibus spending bill Obama signed was a scholarship shut-down provision authored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and inserted by House Democrats.
Contrary to what he told the nation, the president helped kill the program a full three weeks prior to the public release of the official evaluation, which was privately released to U.S. Department of Education officials back in November 2008, igniting charges of foul play.
Sixty-five years ago, equal educational opportunity triumphed against segregationist politicians who opposed the G.I. Bill. Bi-partisan, bi-cameral efforts are now underway in Congress to restore the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program so low-income children don’t have to remain trapped in the dysfunctional D.C. public schooling system — a system where the president, the education secretary, and many Members of Congress wouldn’t dream of sending their own children. Apparently, leadership for this cause will not come from the White House, but perhaps enough elected officials in the nation’s capital have learned from history: direct funding of students, not schooling bureaucracies, benefits them and the country.