The education cartel in Texas, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in particular, have raised the bureaucratic art to new heights by congratulating themselves for failing to attain their mediocre objectives. Consider a report, released by the Tax Research Association of Houston and Harris County and the Acres Home Chamber of Commerce, on the credibility of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), which measures the achievement levels of public school students.

It is bad enough that the standards tested are minimal, that many non-achievers are excluded from the findings, that teachers are said to “teach the TAAS,” and that some schools (the Austin public schools, for instance), alter the test scores. Now this research report tells us that the recent rise in TAAS scores is the result of the gradual lowering of the standards of the test over the past three years. Furthermore, the report reveals, the TAAS generally does not test whether a student meets even the minimum standards of attainment for his grade level. Instead, the reading, math, and algebra sections of the TAAS test below grade level.

The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), an English and language arts test, was found deficient in defining the reading proficiency expected at each grade level. This same criticism was raised by conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education before the report was released. For their troubles, these conservatives have been reviled by the TEA and Governor George Bush, Jr.’s representatives.

A recent poll found, as always, that parents think the schools are doing a good job and that their children are getting a good education. This flies in the face of every comparison of U.S. schools with their counterparts in the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It also ignores studies that show that standards of academic performance fall far below those of earlier days.

In a recent international academic competition, U.S. high school students finished dead last. But school bureaucrats continue to deceive parents and taxpayers alike into thinking that our schools are doing the best they can—and that they could do even better with more money. Even more disconcerting is the growing problem of educators faking student performance evaluations to protect their bureaucratic hides from a realistic assessment of their own performance.

At a recent meeting of Texas conservatives, Maurice P. McTigue, a former cabinet minister and member of New Zealand’s parliament, described what New Zealand did to remedy a similar situation in 1989. A special commission studied the New Zealand public school system and found that, despite cries for more funding, only 30 percent of current funding was going into the classroom. Concluding that the situation was beyond salvation. New Zealand scrapped the whole system and reconstructed the public schools on the basis of truly independent local control. Each school now has its own board of trustees, which sets the standards in the school’s charter. State intervention is limited to requiring a core curriculum and to evaluating whether a school meets the standards of its charter. Parents have the right to use their share of public school funding at the school of their choice. In the past decade, the educational performance of New Zealand students has risen from 85 percent of the OECD average to more than 115 percent.

Texas—and the rest of the United States—needs a similarly radical alternative to its public education system. Halfhearted dabbling at reform will accomplish nothing. Minister McTigue emphasized that real reform must be comprehensive, radical, and surgical. Otherwise, the education bureaucracy will mount a counter-attack to retake any lost territory. Returning our schools to true local control is the real solution to poor public school performance.

That is very different from Governor Bush’s very limited goal of ensuring that, five years from now, children will be able to read by the end of the third grade. Should we continue on our current path, the TEA’S TAAS for third-grade reading by that time may do no more than test whether kids can tell the difference between a book and a brick.