Monopoly Is the Problem with the Nation’s Schools

Published August 18, 2013

It took just eight years and 56 days for the United States to deliver on President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon. But we’re still waiting on another Kennedy proposal: school reform.

In fact, every president since Kennedy—10 presidents over 50 years—has had a plan to “reform” our failing public education system. None of their proposals has noticeably improved student achievement.

After President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started an organization to fight polio in 1937, it took about 30 years to eradicate polio from most of the world.

In 1983, President Reagan called for developing technology to intercept incoming enemy missiles. Many thought the idea impossible. Today this technology is deployed around the globe.

It’s also been 30 years since the Reagan administration issued its famous education reform report, “A Nation at Risk.” But those warnings have gone largely unheeded.

Nation Still at Risk
You could staff a small army with the number of people fighting to reform public education. But most fourth and eighth graders aren’t proficient in math or reading. The college-readiness testing service SAT reports 12th graders’ reading scores are at a 40-year low. Its competitor, ACT, reports 75 percent of incoming college freshman are not prepared for college.

Only 4 percent of African-American students graduate from high school ready for college. Forty percent of all college freshmen must take some sort of remedial course work. Fewer than half of college students graduate within six years. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports 80 million to 90 million adults—about half the workforce—don’t have the skills required to get or advance in jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

Our schools are failing even though our country is filled with hardworking, dedicated, and loving teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, and volunteers.

For the most part they labor mightily to succeed. But they don’t have the power to unravel the mess the public education system has become. Sure the teachers unions are resistant to change. But they’re not the reason for these failures.

Money’s Not the Problem
The United States spends more money per pupil than any other country on the planet, save one, at about $13,000 per pupil per year. In many places the number is far higher. In Washington, DC it’s an astounding $30,000 per pupil. In New York City it’s $27,000.

Over the years, researchers have found increased education spending has little to no impact on student achievement.

Why are our schools, whose only purpose is education, unable to teach children of average intelligence to read in eight or even twelve years?

It’s the system that’s broken, not the people running it.

Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, has described our public school system as a state-run monopoly highly resistant to change.

Fund Students, Not Bureaucracies
The solution? End the monopoly and force schools to compete for students by funding students, not schools or school districts.

That’s what we propose:

  • Any state or school district that accepts federal education funds must provide parent-directed funding for their children’s K-12 education equal to at least 95 percent of the average total per-pupil spending of that specific school district or state.
  • Parents or guardians will direct how and where this money is spent: At any state-approved school or course provider to purchase any and all learning services and other school-related needs. Unused funds may be retained for future education, including college tuition and fees.
  • Per-student spending for special-needs children will be adjusted as determined by elected state officials, being some multiple(s) of the adjusted average total per pupil spending.
  • States will have two years to implement these changes. After that, failure to comply will result in the immediate termination of all federal education funds until the state complies.

Most parents aren’t classroom experts. But they know what’s good for their kids. Giving parents control over the money spent to educate their children will:

  • Turn parents into consumers in a competitive marketplace, giving them the power to choose the schools their children attend.
  • Force K-12 schools to compete for students. Poor-performing schools will either improve or go out of business. And with millions of families to serve, there will be huge incentives for educators to create new schools that will do a good job.
  • Force schools to treat parents and their kids as customers. Successful schools will be the ones that do the best job of serving family needs.

One Simple Change
This one simple change, which could be implemented right now, will unleash the wisdom of millions as the power of free people freely interacting with other free people transforms public education. Every student will gain, as will every teacher.

Based on the success of competition everywhere else, our proposal is guaranteed to work. It can be done quickly. And it doesn’t cost an extra dime.

What moral and honorable reason is there for not making this change right now? What moral and honorable reason is there for fighting to keep the same old failing system?

John Conlin ([email protected]) is a management consultant who lives in Littleton, Colorado. He is founder of End The Education Plantation. Image by Phil Dowsing Creative