School Reform, the Texas Way

Published January 11, 2013

Different increases in wealth among countries are strongly linked to student achievement. But in the most recent international achievement survey, U.S. students ranked 27th in mathematics and 21st in science. Seventy percent of our eighth graders can’t read proficiently, and most never catch up. About 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year, and 44 percent of dropouts younger than 24 years old are jobless.

Yet the United has the highest per-student spending in the world (except for Luxembourg). With poor performance and high spending, American public schools are grossly inefficient. They are also grossly unfair, because poor families are typically confined to the worst schools in big cities, and their children drop out at higher rates than their peers.

Compounding the problem are teachers unions. Their members generally work about 30 hours per week for only nine months, in contrast to the typical American workweek of 40 hours for a minimum of 11 months. Most public school teachers have tenure and are rarely held accountable for performance by administrators or school boards. In fact, state and local boards have failed mightily in their responsibility to represent the public’s, parents’, and students’ best interests.

The Public School Monopoly
Most public schools are local monopolies because parents must send their children to the school their school board has set. The best student performance is concentrated in private schools, both independent and parochial, and, more recently, in charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately governed. Since private schools compete for students, they must serve them well or face declining enrollments and possible closure.

On average, private school students achieve more than those in nearby public schools, private schools are more attractive to parents, and tuition typically averages half of the annual $15,000 public schools spend per student.

Most American private schools must charge tuition, which limits poor and middle-class parents from sending their children to them, even though many want to do so. Privately funded vouchers or scholarships for private school attendance are greatly oversubscribed, usually limited to poor families, and relatively rare.

Charter School Influences
Most states and cities limit the number of public charter schools, despite the independently run schools’ achievement success and attractiveness to parents. Typical charter schools must turn away students. Only about 3 percent of all publicly funded students attend charters.

Parents who get their children into charter schools are less likely to campaign for more charter schools and for reform of the entire school system. Since charter schools require no tuition, they reduce demand for private schools, and many have subsequently closed.

Poor parents are less likely to know about the complex process of getting spots for their children in charter schools, which contributes further to inequality in the public school system. Many poor and middle class parents cannot afford to move to suburbs where, typically, the schools are better than in urban centers.

Charter schools are further limited or threatened by unproductive federal, state, and local regulations. Conflicting regulations and curriculum requirements curtail successful charter organizations from expanding the number of their campuses beyond a single city or state.

The Texas Solution
Given the continuing failure and high and rising costs of public K-12 education, how might more poor and middle-class families receive the school choice they greatly desire? The Savings Grant program before the Texas legislature might provide the best model. It is scheduled for consideration in 2013, and it overcomes most of the past failings of privatizing schools to offer school choice to substantially more families.

Texas’s governor and lieutenant governor have urged substantive reforms, and legislative leaders have endorsed the Savings Grant Program for several reasons. The legislation would reimburse parents for the tuition costs of the private schools they choose or 60 percent of the Texas average per-pupil public school expenditure, whichever amount is smaller. Thus, each participating student would save the state at least 40 percent of the usual public school per-student cost.  

The plan consists of only five sentences and is so simple that the state Comptroller’s office, rather than the Texas Education Agency, would administer it.

The Texas plan will give parents substantially more choice than charter, voucher, and tax deduction plans. Unlike voucher and charter plans, enrollment isn’t capped, there are no family poverty requirements, and no new regulations on participating schools. Oversubscribed schools could enlarge. Unlike tax-credit plans, participation is not limited to people who pay state income taxes; every child receives the same sized grant, and no bureaucratic agencies nor regulations stand between parents and the schools they choose. For these reasons, it appears that the Texas plan may be the last, best hope for American K-12 education.

The failures and high costs of American public schools have remained a threat since publication of A Nation at Risk, in 1983. Subsequent reforms and rising expenditures have accomplished little in three decades. The future of our children and this nation requires a bold new vision for school reform. The Texas Savings Grant embodies that vision.

Herbert J. Walberg ([email protected]) is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He chairs the Beck Foundation and The Heartland Institute. This article is reprinted with permission from the Hoover Institution’s journal, Defining Ideas.

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