Getting More Bang for our Education Buck

Published July 27, 1995

The United States now spends more per student on public elementary and secondary education than any other advanced country belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Yet, international comparisons show our students trailing behind even many undeveloped countries in mathematics, science, geography, foreign languages, and other subjects.

Why does the world’s most productive country have the world’s least productive school system? The reasons are many and varied: child abuse, single parenthood, teen pregnancy; non-uniformity of curriculum; an over-emphasis on administration over teaching; and the loss of local control over funding and management.

What is to be done? Though our system of education faces real challenges, it is not beyond hope. At least four solutions offer promise:

First, greater attention should be paid to improving the quality of child rearing that takes place outside the schools. Even the efforts of the very best educators can be frustrated when a child faces violence, malnutrition, and neglect at home.

New or bigger government programs are not the route to improved child rearing. Congress and state legislators can best contribute to this goal by abolishing ineffective programs. Doing so will pave the way for a return to the private institutions–churches, families, and communities– that once cared for our children and even today are best able to meet their needs.

Second, efforts must be undertaken to develop clear-cut educational goals and standardized testing devices. Large-scale national efforts, like “Goals 2000,” over-reach, and their effectiveness will be hampered by political bickering. But it is not difficult to imagine an environment where competing private groups, perhaps test publishers, could be made responsible for developing standards and appropriate measurement devices. Individual school districts would be free to adopt the system of their choice; students transferring among districts using the same system would be assured of arriving at their new school well-prepared for the transition.

Third, dismantling the U.S. Department of Education would bring to an end its costly meddling in state and local school systems. William Bennett and Lamar Alexander, two former Secretaries of Education, have endorsed such a move. The $33 billion saved would be better spent by local citizens, who still know the names and needs of individual students and teachers.

Finally, schemes abound to return schools to local control. States can abolish heavy-handed regulation of school operations while still holding schools accountable for results. “Charter schools,” for example, allow groups of teachers to found distinctive public schools somewhat independent of the usual regulations and unions. They compete for students, and they might improve upon the lecture, chalkboard, and recitation teaching methods still used in most public schools. Still, teachers unions and others whose interests lie with the status quo have prevented serious, wide-scale tryouts of the idea. The result is too few experiments benefiting too few students.

“Local school councils” have some promise. Composed of parents and other lay citizens, these panels are given the power to hire and fire principals and teachers and determine how discretionary funds are spent. After five years, however, Chicago’s bold experiment with such councils has failed to improve achievement, attendance, or dropout rates. Resistance from the teachers union, central administration, and school board have prevented a true devolution of power and responsibility, and corruption remains commonplace.

Other things being equal, students learn more in small districts and small schools. Breaking up districts and creating smaller “schools within schools” are worthy reforms that could hardly produce results worse than we currently see. However, such reforms are vulnerable to the same opposition that hamper charter schools and local school councils.

There may yet be a panacea: publicly or privately funded scholarships for public, parochial, and independent schools. Research in the U.S. and other countries shows that comparable students in private schools learn more than those in public schools. Yet private schools spend as little as one-third of the amount spent by public schools. Why not give parents scholarships they can use at the school, public or private, of their choice?

Perhaps the strongest argument for scholarships is actual consumer behavior. African-American Protestants in Chicago and other large cities send their children to Catholic schools in increasing numbers. The Catholic schools are so appealing that these parents willingly compromise their religious ideals for a superior education. Moreover, they willingly pass by a free public education for one that typically costs thousands of dollars a year.

The old canard that school choice is unconstitutional should be laid to rest. John Coons, of the University of California Boalt School of Law, and many others have persuasively argued that school vouchers pass constitutional muster. If the opponents of choice are so certain that such programs are unconstitutional, why do they spend millions of dollars lobbying to defeat choice legislation and preventing choice initiatives from reaching the ballot?

In the U.S. more than in any other country in the world, free markets have wondrously and efficiently brought together entrepreneurs, producers, and consumers to produce an endless array of high-quality goods and services. Evidence and logic suggest that markets could work similarly well for schools, if only we let them.

Dr. Herbert J. Walberg is Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Heartland Institute and Research Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author and editor of numerous books and scholarly articles on the factors of productivity in schooling.