Economist: Choice Is Best Path to Education Reform

Published May 1, 2009

A leading University of Kentucky economist says empowering parents through school choice will prove more effective in reforming public education than the state’s top-down, one-size-fits-all policies.

In researching his new report, “Fears versus Facts about School Choice,” John Garen, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Economics for Kentucky’s flagship university, said he was most surprised to discover the high degree of centralized management by the state’s Department of Education.

“Whether you have programs to teach kids how to vote, dropout-prevention grants, family resource centers, increasing the school year by a certain number of days—these are probably good ideas … in some schools, but not good ideas in others,” said Garen in an hour-long interview March 6 on WLLV-AM, a Louisville radio station serving a largely black audience.

Overreaching, Overspending

In his report, published by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Garen pointed out several bills introduced during the 2008 session of the Kentucky General Assembly represented education overreach and overspending, including mandates for additional physical activity during the school day and career-guidance spending.

Garen said the resources used to force such policies on all school districts are wasted when those programs fail to achieve the desired effect.

“This is one way we end up spending more and more but not getting much out of it,” Garen said.

By contrast, Garen’s report states the competition fostered by school choice would provide incentives to “use resources effectively.”

Big Spending, Dismal Results

Along with continual spending increases—inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending nearly doubled nationally between 1970 and 2005, from $5,000 to $9,000—other indicators often considered as progress also rose substantially in the past four-plus decades. Garen reports pupil-teacher ratios fell dramatically—from 25.8 in 1960 to 16 in 2001—while the percentage of teachers with at least a master’s degree rose even more dramatically, from 23.5 percent in 1960 to 56.8 percent in 2001.

Despite these investments, the report found National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results indicate “essentially no progress in reading competence among public-school students,” while mathematics scores improved some for 9- and 13-year-olds but not for 17-year-old high school students.

National trends reflect what’s happened in Kentucky since its much-ballyhooed education reform law (KERA) in 1990. Between 1989-90, the final pre-KERA school year, and 1995-96, Kentucky’s per-pupil spending grew by 30 percent, its student-teacher ratio fell by 4.5 percent, and teacher payrolls rose by 3.86 percent.

Such spending increases did not improve student achievement. Fourth-grade NAEP math test scores showed a lower increase than for the nation as a whole, while eighth-grade math scores showed only a slightly higher increase than the national average. Kentucky’s ACT scores had smaller increases than the national average.

Garen says the education establishment’s claims that KERA has produced “great progress do not mesh with the facts,” including the state’s recent poor performance in reading and writing proficiency and only small improvements in math.

Charter School Growth Explosive

Garen’s report also addresses false claims about charter schools by opponents of school choice.

According to U.S. Department of Education figures, Garen notes, the number of charter schools nationwide went from virtually none in the early 1990s to more than 4,100 today, with 347 of those schools being newly created in 2007. While there are 1.2 million students enrolled in charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, which had a nation-high 20 percent of its students in charters during the 2004-05 school year, Kentucky has no charter school law at all, he noted.

Garen stresses any charter school policy must encourage development of lots of new charters instead of simply turning failing schools into charters. He says that will help counter claims a charter school law won’t work in Kentucky because of a lack of capacity in good schools.

“Otherwise, we’re back to this problem that people are very fearful of—and maybe justifiably so—that all the kids will try to get into the good schools and the rest of them are left in bad schools,” Garen said in the radio interview. “Choice induces suppliers, firms … the entities supplying the educational services, to seek to provide what the people want. And if you have a choice, you can move away from the things you don’t want to find the things that you do.”

Economic Insights

Some education researchers welcome the increased interest of economists such as Garen in education reform.

“It’s a no-brainer that economists would want to get involved with examining efficiency issues in education because education is now absorbing such a huge chunk of every dollar taxpayers send to Washington and the state capitols,” said Bluegrass Institute education analyst Richard G. Innes. “That’s their bread and butter.”

While economists don’t necessarily understand all the intricacies of education policy, education researchers often “start on the zero run when trying to learn statistical analysis,” Innes said.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information …

“Fears Versus Facts About School Choice: An overview of issues surrounding the effects of competition on public schools,” by John Garen, Ph.D., Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, January 24, 2009:

Radio interview with John Garen, Ph.D., chairman of the University of Kentucky, Department of Economics, March 6, 2009: School Choice.