To Improve, Public Schools Need Competition, Not More Money

Published November 18, 2002

State Education Superintendent Robert E. Schiller must think Illinois taxpayers are pretty gullible if he thinks he can sell the idea that our public schools need more money to produce better results (Voice of the People, November 9, 2002). He rightly faults the poor performance of Illinois public schools, where about 37 percent of elementary students failed to meet 2002 state reading and mathematics standards, with even lower achievement among black and Hispanic students. But where does he get the idea that more money will bring higher student achievement? It hasn’t yet.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, public education spending in Illinois jumped 26 percent in the five years through school year 2001-02, with spending per student up almost 22 percent. Spending per student in 2001-02 was $7,600, above the national average of $7,525. Revenues per student were over $8,000. If 61 percent of Illinois school districts are operating at a deficit, then taxpayers certainly aren’t to blame.

While Schiller makes much of the potential consequences of not providing the public schools with more funding, taxpayers may reasonably ask: What are we getting for our money now? Let’s take a look.

Fact: Only 78 percent of Illinois students entering ninth grade receive a high school diploma four years later, according to a Manhattan Institute study of the class of 1998. This means that Illinois’ public education system has a failure rate of one in five — despite a taxpayer investment of over $8,000 per student per year.

Fact: Only one in four Illinois eighth-graders is proficient in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The good news: This is an improvement over the only one in five Illinois students who is proficient in math at fourth-grade.

Fact: With revenues of $16.68 billion, Illinois’ public schools would rank as the state’s tenth largest business, edging out McDonald’s, which had revenues of $14.24 billion in 2000.

Fact: Public schools are by far the state’s largest employer, with taxpayers supporting an estimated 250,000 teachers, administrators and support staff in the state’s public schools. This is one employee for every 8 children in school. By comparison, the largest private employer in the state is Jewel/Osco, with a mere 38,900 employees.

Schiller’s answer to the state’s educational woes is to pump more money into this huge system — but with no guarantee of better performance.

There’s a better way.

Instead of giving even more money to the public schools, give the money to the children. This is child-centered funding, where the money for education is attached to the child and is collected by the school the child attends. This concept of “the funding follows the child” underlies open enrollment, charter schools, and school vouchers.

This is not a radical concept. In fact, it’s how the rest of America works. We take our money to the grocery store, the gas station, the video store, the auto dealer, and so on. Our choices determine who gets our money, and the competition for those dollars raises the quality of the products and services we buy.

Evidence shows that this approach works in education, too. For example, parents are very happy with the 11-year-old voucher program in Milwaukee. Students are doing well, and the voucher schools are more integrated than the public schools. But, most important, Milwaukee’s public schools have improved as a result of competition from voucher schools, with the worst schools showing the biggest improvement.

In Florida, it’s a similar story. There, the threat of losing students to voucher schools has dramatically improved the state’s worst public schools. Michigan doesn’t even have vouchers, but just putting a voucher initiative on the ballot in November 2000 caused the worst public schools there to reduce their dropout rates.

Illinois children need a better education from their public schools and taxpayers deserve a better return on the $16.8 billion they invest annually in these schools. The way to do that is to give the money to the children, not to the bureaucrats. School choice — not more money — is the most effective mechanism for achieving sustained improvement in the public schools.

This letter by George Clowes, Managing Editor of School Reform News, was in response to a letter from Illinois State Superintendent of Education Robert E. Schiller that appeared in the November 9, 2002, edition of the Chicago Tribune.

For further information, contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner at 312/377-4000, 773/489-6447 (evenings), email [email protected]