Since 1983, the freshmen high school graduation rate has increased a measly 1.8 percent. Meanwhile, student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has stagnated, dropping by 1 point in reading and increasing by merely 4 points in math among 17-year-olds from the early 1980s to 2008. Today, one-third of fourth graders are functionally illiterate as judged by the NAEP. So, what exactly went wrong?

The answer is not a lack of funding, as teachers unions love to blame. To the contrary, school spending has increased 80 percent since 1983 after adjusting for inflation – that’s triple the growth of enrollment over the same time period. The answer is not low academic standards either, as every major federal education reform since the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 has required states to raise them. Rather, instead of throwing more money and tying more red tape to the problem, I believe the answer to achieving real educational reform is one of incentives.

Be it No Child Left Behind’s draconian testing benchmarks under the Bush administration or the new Common Core national curriculum under the Obama administration, our elected officials have ceaselessly tried to standardize American schools when they are intrinsically assorted. They need to realize that no two students or teachers are alike regardless of how many rules and requirements we throw at them. The way Mrs. Brown teaches multiplication to her second grade class, for example, may be completely different than Mr. Green does next door – even if they both comply with the same centralized standards.

Rather, the success of school choice initiatives over the past two decades have taught us that effective educational reform comes from embracing the diversity of our schools instead of suppressing it. By empowering teachers with greater pedagogical freedom instead of more standards, they are incentivized to tailor their teaching more effectively to students’ needs. By empowering parents with school choice instead of an arbitrary assignment by zip code, they are incentivized to choose the best educational environment for their child.

Proof keeps pouring in that this decentralized approach works. The Harlem Success Academy charters in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods are some of the best schools in the Empire State is an excellent example. Last year alone, 97% of Academy student passed the math and 88 percent passed the English sections of New York’s student assessment test, outperforming the city’s public schools as a whole by 31 percent and 33 percent. Most amazingly, 100 percent of Academy students passed the science section.

The evidence for school choice is not just anecdotal. The largest meta-analysis of charter schools in 2009, found that over two-thirds of studies conducted after 2001 concluded charter schools performed either the same or significantly better than their district school counterparts.

School choice has proven to align incentives towards improving students’ learning instead of complying with the latest one-size-fits-all reform from Washington. It is not until our public school system at large begins to adopt such pedagogical freedom that we will begin to see major improvements in student achievement – especially among the students most in need. It is not until we empower every parent with the choice to send their child to the safest and best school available that our nation will cease to be “at risk.” 

Given is a policy analyst for Americans for Prosperity.