Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; a contributing editor at Fortune; and the host of "Left, Right & Center," public radio's popular week-in-review program. Miller's first book, The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems In Ways Liberals And Conservatives Can Love, was published in 2003, and was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. His latest book, The Tyranny Of Dead Ideas, was published by Henry Holt/Times Books in January 2009. Miller served as Senior Advisor to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1995. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.
Question: What are dead ideas in education?
Miller: The dead idea I focused on education on the book is the idea that schools are a local matter and by that I mean the kind of unique tradition we have in the US which is different in all the other advanced countries of having schools funded and standard set and everything run basically from what are now 15,000 local school districts. And, you know, in the early 19th century when the system got started, it was perfectly sensible. In the 21st century when we’re in a global economy, when our kids are competing for jobs with kids in India and China and other rising powers, it’s absolutely holding us back in two big ways I think. First, we have the most inequitable system of school financing in the world. No other nation would tolerate this. So where you got, say, because of the local property tax and local state tax funding base of American education, no one ever talks about this, but the federal government only contributes about $0.09 out of $1 to K to 12 education and property taxes and assorted state taxes make up the rest. So, if you’re in a poor neighborhood, if you’re in a poor urban neighborhood, for example, in Chicago, you’ve got the least experienced teachers being recruited there, you’ve got rundown buildings, shabby facilities, you know, sewage [pouring into things], things that haven’t been fixed, 15 minutes up the road, you’ll have schools in the Chicago suburbs where you’ve got the best teachers in the state, because money can buy that, because teachers are the biggest part of a school budget. You’ve got sparkling facilities, Olympic quality swimming pools, you know, Broadway style theaters. These are 15 minutes away and it’s solely a function of this local funding that we live with. Now, we sort of talk about local control. You know, it’s kind of like motherhood and apple pies if it was this incredible virtue, and, obviously, I’m all for parental involvement in schools, you know, local ownership of the sense of what the school is doing, but we’re the only country that let’s kids’ fate depends so much on the wealth of the area he happens to be born in and I think that’s wrong. And even more than that, it’s hurting our economy as a whole when we’re letting tens of millions of kids be left behind in situations like these and we’ll need a greater federal role in national education funding and in standards if we’re going to get where we need to go.
Question: Would school choice give us more flexibility with education decisions?
Miller: You could do it through more choice. I mean one of the interesting things I’m always fascinated by is that Conservative Education Reformers will often point to places like Sweden or Holland where they have essentially a kind of universal charter system where parents can choose where they want to go and they tout that as a model of, look, there it can show you in an advanced country, you can do a kind of universal choice. And what I say to them is that’s true but a bedrock principle that those countries also had is that per pupil funding is the same whether you’re rich or poor. In fact, in those countries, they think that poorer kids need higher per pupil funding because they are overcoming different family disadvantages. And so my challenge to my conservative friends is don’t talk about choice without talking about equity. Don’t point to a model that’s choice without adapting the equity that they find, when they look at the US, they’re appalled by the fiscal inequity and they know it matters.