The great Milton Friedman once said that we should always judge policies on results instead of intent. With that in mind, the results of top-down education policy have thus far been a complete failure. As we spend more money and hire more teachers, test scores have simultaneously experienced little to no change. Thanks to the Cato Institute, we can see how a shocking trend points directly to government administered failure.
Cato aggregated state, local, and federal spending per student per K-12 education and compared it relative to test scores. Additionally, they compared spending and teacher employment levels to enrollment. To measure outcomes, Cato uses adjusted SAT achievement relative to National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores.
Spending and teachers per student have increased enormously while test scores have barely changed. Performance has been stagnant despite an almost tripling of inflation-adjusted costs of educating students K-12.
We can debate about whether or not this is an appropriate level of funding, but the lack of performance improvement is undeniable. To me, this points to a failure of government administration and not a lack of funding, which is a popular narrative of today. One would expect a relative performance improvement to coincide with spending increases, but that has not been the case.
Teachers have grown relative to the student body as well. Today, we employ over 150% as many teachers as we did in 1970, but they teach only 109% as many students. The growth of teacher employment has been five times that of student enrollment. Again, the popular narrative of “teacher shortages” does not hold up.
As it stands now, the market is a competition for government funding and not consumer demand. Switching costs are high and consumer power is low, thus inhibiting competition. This does not exist by nature of the market, but rather decades of top-down education programs imposed by the Department of Education, which should be abolished. These programs force teachers to “teach the test” while preventing schools from tailoring a curriculum to their students and values.
How do we address this issue? I support a voucher program, school choice, and bottom-up curriculum.
School vouchers empower parents to make cost-based decisions, thus freeing up the market and promoting competition. In short, the government would provide a family with a voucher worth $X and it would be universally accepted. Parents could then seek out schools that best suit their child’s achievement levels, educational goals, and other needs.
If parents wish to send their kids to a private school, they need only pay a fee in addition to the voucher, thus switching costs are reduced. Instead of paying taxes plus private school tuition, parents would receive a benefit from paid taxes and only pay the tuition difference. Moreover, charitable organizations would be more inclined to provide scholarships to low-income students since they would only have to cover the difference of tuition minus voucher.
A voucher system would be rendered ineffective without school choice. The government, let alone the federal leviathan, has no constitutional authority to compel a student to attend a specific institution based on where they are born. It traps bright minds in failing schools while also maintaining a status quo of failure.
Furthermore, I see no reason why teachers, parents, and local administrators should not be determining their own curriculum and education standards. Disinterested third parties seeking DC political points are in no way more qualified to make these decisions. It should be left to the people most closely involved with the student body.
Top-down educational standards inevitably come with corporate handouts to textbook giants like Pearson, who received 27 project awards from Common Core. Unsurprisingly, Pearson also shelled out millions to develop Common Core.
Do vouchers work? It is extremely difficult to ascertain the exact outcomes due to the complex nature of our current system. However, evidence from Florida provides some insight.
Economists from Northwestern University conducted an analysis on the competitive effects on Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship. They find that “greater degrees of competition are associated with greater improvements in students’ test scores”. In other words, increased competitive pressure led to general improvements in public school performance.
Instead of continuing to spend enormous sums of money, we must address to structural problems in our education system. Empowering those involved in education will ultimately produce the best results. Reform should be focused on students and not on expanding government intervention.