Battling Hurricane Gray through Education Choice

Published February 10, 2015

Based on projections, by the year 2030 the United States will experience an alarming, age-driven dependency ratio, transferring a majority of the economic responsibility of public health care and education to a small working class. A higher age dependency ratio indicates a high number of nonworkers and small number of workers shouldering public health, education, and retirement costs.

A new report by Senior Advisor of Policy and Research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education Matthew Ladner titled “Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education” focuses on a phenomenon Ladner refers to as “Hurricane Gray.” Ladner forecasts an increasingly strained education economy in the next fifteen years, with the nation’s young people academically unable to keep up with global peers and the aging of the population creating an unsustainable economy. Ladner says education reform is critical if the nation is to avoid this problem.

“Economists have found dependency ratios to be predictive of economic growth,” Ladner writes, noting dependency ratios serve as a “measure of societal strain.”

“Between now and 2030 the baby boomers will be retiring and sending their grandchildren off to school,” Ladner said, in an interview with School Reform News. “We’ve never really faced anything like this before. Our social welfare state is simply not configured for this at all.… We are more or less obliged to rethink the entire social welfare state, but the most urgent [need] is K-12.”

Outdated System

The traditional public education system has not served students well in the past forty years, Ladner says, and the economy won’t be able to support the system unless there is a greater return on each education dollar spent.

Ladner recommends an array of education services to serve the diverse learning needs of today’s students. His recommendations include new private schools, partnerships with institutions of higher education, private tutoring and therapists, blended and online education programs, and other methods and systems.

Creating a competitive marketplace would counter the surge of dollars and “stagnant” outcomes seen in the current system, according to Ladner’s study.

“High-quality blended-learning models are producing powerful student achievement outcomes around the country,” said Don Soifer, vice president of the Lexington Institute and author of a new report, Transforming Education Through Digital and Blended Learning.

“Most of these models were designed in schools of choice—either charter schools or private Catholic schools,” he added. “But today the most exciting narrative in the growth of blended learning is that forward-thinking leaders are implementing these models in traditional school districts, designed to address their specific educational needs.”

State-by-State Comparisons

Ladner’s report includes state-by-state dependency ratios and tells which states will experience the heaviest strain.

Projections indicate New Mexico will have the biggest increase in age dependency ratio between 2010 and 2030, followed by North Dakota, Wyoming, and Florida. Utah will have the smallest increase, Ladner found.

“As I’ve researched this and talked to people around the country, a lot of state lawmakers… almost everyone is aware that this problem exists, but they have it trained in their minds that it’s a federal problem,” Ladner said.

The demographic shift will affect state policy profoundly, Ladner said.

Calls for School Choice 2.0

Ladner recommends an approach he calls “School Choice 2.0”: using charters and vouchers as forward movement in positive reform. Ladner lauds charters and vouchers as positive reform measures, with ESAs having the most powerful potential to drive academic improvement, cost-effectively, he said.

Education Savings Accounts may represent the next generation of vouchers, according to some education advocates.

“Expanding choice options through ESAs is a much more cost-effective way to provide educational services,” said Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

“Education Savings Accounts are a much more powerful version of the choice mechanism than the traditional voucher, a lot more flexible. It moves to a point now where we can change the educational method … and crucially, allow people to use unused funds for future education expenses,” Ladner said.

“We’re in the experimental stage here, but I’m completely convinced that we have enough evidence from voucher programs, [namely] academic gains in the special education schools and enormous progress tracked through NAEP,” Ladner said.

Reform proponents such as Levesque and Ladner say savings accounts offer the opportunity for parents to design high-achieving education plans for their children at a fraction of state’s per-pupil cost, resulting in immediate cost savings.

‘Set Them Free’

Ladner stresses the unsustainability of the current system, writing, “the status-quo does not represent a viable option… If we set them free and put them in charge, parents just might amaze us with their transformation of education.

“Our attempt to spend our way to high-quality schools broadly disappointed but persisted for a long time. We should grant independence to schools,” his book continued. “We should give almost complete control of education to parents and allow them to voluntarily contract with schools and other service providers.”

School choice, particularly in the form of ESAs, creates incentive for providers to develop better products, improving the education marketplace, Ladner notes.

“Without a vibrant environment of school choice, it is extremely unlikely that we would be seeing blended learning taking off around the country as we do today,” Soifer said.

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia. 

Image by Alberto G.