America - Andrew Stephen on magic solutions for US schools

Charter schools and vouchers were supposed to be the magic bullets to improve education. But nobody

A chapter in my forthcoming book What Americans Don't Know About Themselves will undoubtedly be on education: OECD figures out a fortnight ago again confirmed that American schoolchildren perform woefully compared with those of most other western societies (including the UK). There are currently a record-breaking 47.2 million kids in US public (ie, state) schools, but such is the dissatisfaction that more and more schools and educational plans are splintering off into sometimes dangerous experimentation - with wild results.

A year ago, the buzzword in education was "vouchers", which gave the parents of pupils in poor schools a lump sum, usually ranging from $1,250 to $3,700, to divert to private education. In most cases, they change to Catholic schools - the vouchers would not go far in conventional private schools. Currently, 15,000 children use vouchers to attend private schools, mainly in Cleveland, Ohio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the state of Florida.

The idea has supporters on both left and right. The left likes the idea of helping poor children to escape bad schools; the right likes to help the poor to help themselves. But parents who used vouchers to move their children found that public schools paid for hidden extras that private ones do not, such as school lunches and transport costs. In Jeb Bush's Florida, a quarter of the kids who were signed up for vouchers this school year have already found themselves back in the public system. Teachers' unions say vouchers take money - as well as the most promising pupils - out of the public system just where it is needed most. A Rand Corporation study, however, decided that "the conclusions of neither side in the debate can be sustained".

Magic solutions for America's education crisis thus come and go with bewildering speed, and so it is with the "charter schools", too. This experiment started in Minnesota in 1992, leading ten years later to the existence of 2,357 such schools with 600,000 pupils. In Washington, DC, as many as one in ten children attends a charter school. Charters are normally run by private companies on behalf of parents, teachers and other groups - and in return for accountability on finances and educational standards, the companies get public funding. Last year, the Bush administration gave $2m to charter schools; in the new year that is expected to increase to $3m.

Supporters boast of smaller class sizes, better curricula and empowered teachers and parents, but again the jury is still out. "We know people like them," says Chester Finn, an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration and now head of the Washington-based Fordham Foundation. "The thing we've never been too clear about is whether they produce stronger academic achievement . . . people are still chipping away at it as a research problem."

The American Federation of Teachers says that a lot more evidence is required before important decisions are made. "While some are successful and should be used as models, most charter schools don't improve student achievement, aren't innovative and are less accountable than the public schools," the federation's president, Sandra Feldman, says. The incidence of charter schools varies wildly: California has 358, Virginia only six. Pupils in Rhode Island, for example, do not get the same chance to attend charter schools as those in California.

New educational ideas and gimmicks thus ricochet around, giving the Republicans the chance to out-Democrat the Democrats on compassionate educational issues. Gimmicks and new ideas, however tiny in conception and practice, get the ambitious politician a long way. In the space of a year, the notion of vouchers as a system that would equalise and revolutionise America's education system has virtually faded away. Charter schools, successful in some cases and disastrous in others, now seem to be going the same way.

After its four-year study, the Rand Corporation concluded that the experiments were too small to extrapolate any significant conclusions. But a recent study by the respected Brookings Institution found that charter schools lagged behind state schools in reading and maths tests by as much as a year, adding to the choruses decrying a lack of solid accountability in the charter schools, combined with sometimes lax and even dishonest accounting. "One possible explanation for the lower test scores is that charter schools are not doing a very good job," says Tom Loveless of Brookings.

Both main parties in Britain have been attracted by vouchers and charter schools. They should beware: either these ideas do not work or there is, as yet, far too little evidence. In the meantime, they provide politicians with conscience-salving policies that sound good but do not go very far in practice, certainly not for the 47 million other children in the US public education system.