‘The Solution’ to Public Education Woes

Published April 28, 1995

I recently received a letter from the former superintendent of a public school system in Illinois. The writer said spending more money on the state’s public schools wouldn’t make them better, but that extending the number of hours children spend in school would. His letter got me thinking.

He’s right, of course. The length of the school day ought to be extended, and the length of the school year ought to increase by (I would say) at least four weeks. I agree with the superintendent that this would improve achievement by at least some students.

I disagree, however, with the writer’s claim that this is “the solution” to the problem faced by public schools. “The solution” varies from parent to parent and child to child. Some children need phonics but too many schools don’t teach it; making the school day longer won’t put phonics back in the classroom. Similarly, some parents want real literature brought back into their children’s curriculum, but they face strong opposition from school administrators. Some children need teachers who aren’t ten years past their peak and just hanging on for their pensions.

Textbook selection, teacher training, appropriate facilities, school size, parental involvement, values or religious instruction. . . it’s hard to say whether any of these would deliver more or less benefit for any given child, than an increase in the length of the school day or school year. The reason why no two people seem to have the same solution for the problems of public education may be because they are all right!

What can we do to increase the odds that the right solution will be adopted for each parent or child? The school-based management movement is supposed to do this by giving parents and students a bigger role in shaping their school. But do they really know what works best? And in practice this means only a minority of parents (the loudest) make most of the decisions.

Public school choice is supposed to help produce the right solutions by increasing the odds that students will be enrolled in schools that meet their needs. But how much are public schools allowed to differ from one another? And the inconvenience of traveling to a school in another district is often enough of a disincentive to discourage choice.

I’m convinced that school-based management works only when parents are free to remove their children from a school if it still fails to meet their individual needs. This freedom to “exit” gives the parents and educators in charge of the school information about what parents want and an incentive to design programs to meet those demands.

This freedom to leave is only effective when tax dollars follow a student to private and parochial schools as well as public schools. If the only choice is another mismanaged public school, what kind of information and incentives can be generated by choice?

The information and incentives to lengthen the school day, pick the right textbooks, limit enrollment to the right number, and so on will be missing unless comprehensive educational choice is implemented. Comprehensive choice would make public and private schools compete with one another for the loyalty of parents and students, and make students compete with one another to get into the best quality schools. Anything short of this will fail to produce the information necessary for, and the incentives to encourage everyone to make, the right decisions.

Wisconsin and Vermont have “voucher” programs that allow public funds to be used to pay for tuition at private schools. Such programs have enabled parents to choose private schools for their children when the local public school fails to do a good job, without the financial penalty of paying both tuition and school taxes. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such programs are constitutional.

It is time more cities and states experimented with the voucher idea. It may be as close as we’ll ever get to finding a real “solution” to public schools.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute