Undereducated Today, Outsourced Tomorrow?

The outsourcing of jobs to lower-wage countries was a hot topic throughout the campaign of 2004, but it is not clear what the president of the United States can do about it.

Consider American businesses that have sent computer programming jobs to India, even though there are programmers capable of doing the work here. The firms did so because American programmers cost a great deal more than their Indian counterparts without consistently offering enough in return. The tax incentives and better business climate that President Bush and Sen. Kerry discussed during the campaign cannot alter that economic reality.

Higher-wage U.S. workers are in danger of seeing their jobs migrate abroad if they have the same skill sets as foreign workers, the same level of productivity and the same output quality. They can hang on to their higher salaries only by working significantly faster or better, or by branching out into new fields in which other countries lag behind. And they can do that only if America has the best education system in the world.

We don’t. We really don’t.

Our high school seniors and recent graduates perform abysmally on international tests of mathematics, science and literacy. When the top 10 percent of our high school seniors were compared to top seniors in other nations on tests of mathematics and physics, they placed second to last in both subjects against other countries for which the data were available, and behind every other industrialized country.

So what do we need to do to become educationally competitive? The first step is to realize that the federal government does not have the power to transform American education. Even President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act wisely leaves the most important decisions to state governments, not federal officials.

The second step is to take a hint from the Indians themselves. It is now well-known that India has a vast and growing technology workforce capable of doing business in English. What is not well-known is how they got it.

If you guessed it was because of a wondrously effective and efficient public school system, no gold star for you. Indian public schooling is a shambles, both literally and figuratively. A typical article in this week’s Times Of India leads with the sentence: “Broken desks, stinking toilets and cheerless surroundings are a part of the daily existence of students in government schools.” Over the past decade, researchers have found that Indian private schools are far better maintained, more academically effective, cheaper to operate and more responsive to the demands of families than the nation’s public schools.

More importantly, parents are concluding the same thing and fleeing to the private sector en masse. One notable reason for this migration is that English is usually the language of instruction for all classes in private schools, whereas it is available only as an optional course, if at all, in most public schools. Millions of Indian families have decided not to sacrifice their children’s futures by waiting for their government schools to get a clue. They’re taking matters into their own hands.

This educational exodus is not confined to the wealthy. Even in the poorest urban slums, private school enrollment is often outstripping public school enrollment. In Hyderabad, more than two-thirds of low-income families choose to send their children to private schools rather than abandon them to free government schools.

This trend is only accelerating. In the Southern town of Mormugao, public- and private-sector enrollment figures have reversed in just the past four years. In 2000, the city had 15,000 children in public schools and 6,000 in private schools. This fall, the figures are 5,500 students in public schools and 18,000 in private ones.

The private sector now dominates Indian higher education in computer-related fields. In fact, one Indian education business alone, the National Institute for Information Technology (NIIT), has trained 3 million information technology professionals in barely two decades, and it currently graduates 500,000 more each year.

Faced with this reality, we have two choices: We can go down with the ship of the public school monopoly, or we can introduce policies like a universal education tax credit, which will create a competitive education marketplace by providing tax incentives to those who finance children’s education, while ensuring that every family has access to that market.

As a longtime advocate of school choice, President Bush will presumably support states that put parents back in charge of their children’s education. Getting it done is up to us.

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Andrew J. Coulson, an adjunct scholar with the Commonwealth Foundation and author of Reinventing Education in Pennsylvania: Fulfilling the Promise of Public Schooling, is senior fellow in education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan.

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