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America has problems more urgent than our dreadful schools, but none more serious.  Little contributes more to high unemployment, sluggish economic growth, rising income inequality, poverty and violent crime.

Thirty two million adults — 14 percent of the population, 19 percent of high school graduates — can’t read, according to a study last year by the U.S. Department of Education

The literacy rate is no better than it was in 2003 and is worse than in 1993.  Of the students who come to his classroom, "only a small fraction have a functioning understanding of written English," said a high school teacher in Oakland, California in 2007.  "They do not know how to form a sentence.  They cannot write an intelligible paragraph."

Even more struggle to make change or balance a checkbook.

"An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people," said Thomas Jefferson.

"Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army," said Edward Everett.  He’s the guy who made the really long speech before Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

"Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in," Lincoln said. "That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance."

Generations X and Y lack the basic knowledge of history, civics, economics and geography to fulfill their duties as citizens.

*Half of 18 to 24 year olds surveyed by the National Geographic Society in 2006 couldn’t find New York State on a map. 

*In a 2009 survey of high school students in Oklahoma, only 28 percent knew the Constitution is the supreme law of the land; just 27 percent could name the two houses of Congress.

*Just 52 percent of adults and 38 percent of high school students in a 1999 survey knew what the stock market does.  Only a third of adults and 20 percent of students understood how inflation works.

The literacy rate in Massachusetts was higher in 1798 than it is now, according to historian David McCulloch.  In 1900, only 10.7 percent of Americans were functionally illiterate. 

Americans may have been more literate in 1776 than they are today.  That year roughly 20 percent of the residents of the 13 Colonies bought a copy of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, "Common Sense."  Paine’s prose is eloquent, but according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, it requires a level of literacy to read that only 13 percent of American adults possess today.

Massive ignorance of what every American should know is also a recent phenomenon.  To graduate from the 8th grade in Bullitt County, Kentucky, in 1912, students had to answer questions like these: "define latitude and longitude; name and give the capitals of the states touching the Ohio river; describe the function of the liver; name three rights given to Congress by the Constitution; give the cause of the war of 1812 and name an important battle during that war."

IQ scores have risen substantially in the last 100 years.  There’s a hot debate over how accurately they measure intelligence.  But it’s clear young people today have more learning potential than their grandparents did. So why are so many dumber than rocks?

It isn’t for lack of resources.  In the 1945-46 school year, $1,214 was spent per pupil in constant 2001 dollars in public K-12 schools. That doubled by 1956, doubled again by 1970, doubled a third time, to $8,745, in the 2001-2002 school year.  Per pupil expenditures were $11,184 in 2009-2010.

Yet test scores have been flat since 1970.  We’ve lost ground to international competitors, rank near the bottom in math and science.

This is worse than a tragic misallocation of resources, a gargantuan waste of money.  Ponder the fact that nearly one high school graduate in five is functionally illiterate.  Could there be a more egregious — or more pernicious — example of fraud? 

The fraudsters — Democrat politicians, teacher unions, educrats — have done more harm than those engaged in other types of organized crime.  They cheat the recipients of the bogus diplomas, their employers, the taxpayers who paid for the education these students didn’t get.

Worse than the money they’ve stolen are the lives they’ve ruined.

Education used to be the express train to upward mobility. No longer.  Inner city schools are our most expensive, and our worst.  Among high school graduates in 2011, only 13 percent of blacks, 4 percent of Hispanics were proficient at reading, according to a Harvard study.  More than half of black and Hispanic students in inner city schools drop out without getting a diploma.

It isn’t because they are black or Hispanic that these children aren’t learning, Marva Collins proved in Chicago, Jaime Escalante proved in the barrios of east LA. Many of the teachers and administrators who aren’t teaching them what they need to know have six figure compensation packages.

"It is in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Philadelphia where the largest numbers of children cannot read, write, and compute at acceptable levels and where racial gaps between whites and blacks and Latinos are widest," wrote Lydia Segal in her book on corruption in America’s public schools. "It is in large cities that minority boys in particular, trapped in poor schools, have the greatest chance of flunking out and getting sucked into the downward spiral of crime and prison."

Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare.  Democrats would rather perpetuate the fraud than help these kids, their ferocious hostility to school choice makes clear.

Schools will go from bad to worse at ever greater expense until we take control of how education dollars are spent from the fraudsters and give it to parents.

Some parents will make bad choices.  But no parent will make choices worse than the fraudsters have made.

Jack Kelly is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette