Stupid in Oregon?

It’s not often that a television show changes the terms of the debate on some important public policy. But that could be the case if enough people watched last Friday’s John Stossel TV Special, “Stupid in America.”

Stossel calls himself the ABC News in-house contrarian, and he solidified that claim with the way he exposed America’s public school monopoly for what it is “” an expensive, union-controlled failure.
The show made its points primarily though the words of students and teachers. After giving the same tests to American and Belgian kids, Stossel showed how shocked the highest-scoring American student was when he found out that the Belgians did so much better. The Belgian students thought the tests were so easy that the American kids must be stupid to have done so poorly. The main point of this exercise was that Belgians have school choice and Americans don’t. Their schools are better than ours because of the competition.

The teachers union officials who appeared on the show were having none of Stossel’s “competition makes schools better” argument. To them, the union is the be-all and end-all of the public education system. Taxpayers can’t spend too much to provide union members with good salaries, benefits and job security.

Of course, those union leaders were from New York City, not pastoral Oregon. Things are different here, right? Well, not really. Just ten days ago a teachers union spokesperson testified before an Oregon legislative committee that the union wants taxpayers to give schools over one billion dollars more per biennium to meet Quality Education Model goals. I testified later that lawmakers shouldn’t be surprised if any additional money they allocate to education doesn’t reach the kids, because “there are powerful special interest groups standing between the kids and the money, and their understandable goal is to capture as much of any additional funding as they can.”

Stossel went on with example after example showing how our public school system is failing many of its students. The state of Florida tried to address this failure, but two weeks ago the Florida Supreme Court threw out the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which allowed kids in failing public schools to attend other public or private schools of their choice. The Court ruled that such a choice violated the state constitution’s “uniformity clause” by allowing students to attend schools that weren’t just like the ones they left. The result of this decision will be to force children to return to the very public schools the state already determined had failed them. If you think things are different in Oregon, remember that we have a “uniformity clause” in our constitution as well.

Stossel interviewed the former teacher who brought the Florida suit. When asked why she didn’t think competition would make things better for kids, here’s what she said: “Competition is not for children, it’s not for human beings, it’s not for public education. It never has been and it never will be.” This is the face of public education today. This is the mentality of those who see the school system as their own gravy train, and let the kids fend for themselves.

America’s, and Oregon’s, public school systems now spend twice the dollars per pupil, adjusted for inflation, as they did in the 1970s. They spend four times what they spent in the 1950s. And what do we have to show for all this spending? Not much based on standardized test scores. Yet the monopolists still want more. Oregon soon faces a lawsuit charging the state with chronic under funding of public schools. Such lawsuits have already been filed in 37 states, and so far 21 of those cases have gone against the states.

If Oregonians are ever going to see their schools improve, it won’t be through more tax funding; it will be through more school choice. If you watched Stossel’s “Stupid In America,” tell you friends and legislators about what you learned. You can order DVDs of the show for yourself and for everyone you know who has an open mind on the issue. With a picture being worth a thousand words, watching this one-hour show will be like reading millions of words on the subject of how to improve our schools.

And, whether you saw the show or not, be sure to meet and hear John Stossel live when he comes to Portland the evening of Sunday, February 5th for a private reception, public talk and book signing on behalf of Cascade Policy Institute. His topic will be “Freedom and its Enemies.” Watching “Stupid in America” gives you a pretty good idea who some of freedom’s enemies are; come to hear John Stossel live to learn about who the rest of them are, and what you can do to fight back.

For details about John Stossel’s events in Portland the evening of Sunday, February 5th, call Cascade Policy Institute at (503) 242-0900 or go to

Posted by Steve Buckstein. Steve is Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market think tank.