By Logan Albright | Watchdog Opinion
In early June, the U.S. Census Bureau issued a report on the state of public education finances in the United States. Among the reports many interesting charts and graphs is the tracking of per-student spending in elementary and secondary schools from 1992 to present. In all but one year, spending has increased, topping out at $10,705 per student. With a trend like that, most reasonable people would expect to see dramatic results reflected in student performance. Otherwise, what are we paying for?
Unfortunately, this is far from the case. While we continue to increase funding for schools, the chorus of voices decrying the deplorable state of public education in this country has only grown louder. Fear of falling behind in international assessments is driving politicians and pundits to ignore the actual evidence that throwing money at a problem rarely does much to solve it.
Ever since Lyndon Johnson proposed his vision of a Great Society and founded the U.S. Department of Education, it has been the tacit assumption of government bureaucrats that more spending will always have positive results. This is not the case. An analysis published by the Cato Institute found that forty years of constantly growing spending on education has had virtually no effect on math scores, reading scores, science scores, or even school enrollment.
President Obama’s Race to the Top program awarded more than $4 billion in federal funding to states that implemented specified reforms. The result led to a lot of compliance costs for states without much to show for it. The Head Start early education program costs around $8 billion a year, despite the program’s own analysis finding that it doesn’t work. The programs keeping getting bigger and more expensive, but the results remain elusive. How long will it take before we admit that it’s time to rethink this strategy?
The problem with government spending on something like education is that it’s an incredibly blunt instrument applied to something that is, by its very nature, subtle and individual. For money to be effective, it has to be targeted in very specific ways, and the best people to do this are those closest to the kids – namely, parents.
With per-student spending topping $10,000, it’s obvious that this money could be spent more wisely. Why not let parents decide how to spend it? The average cost of a private elementary school is considerably lower, at $7,770 a year, with private high schools averaging $13,030 a year. A state voucher system, like the one recently passed in Nevada, would let parents decide the best options for their children, instead of being tied to a particular district based on where they live. In addition to expanding people’s options, the ensuing competition will force schools to improve their performance if they want to retain students.
A familiar quotation, frequently attributed both to Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, runs, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to come out different.” The application of this principle to the United States’ education policy over the last 40 years is particularly appropriate. Rather than improving public education, the policy of ever-increasing funding has not only failed to produce results, but has been so ineffective that it has been driving people out of the education bureaucracy altogether and towards alternative options like homeschooling. This shift has been so dramatic that, in some states, homeschoolers now outnumber private school students.
As the U.S. Senate prepares to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it’s important to acknowledge that the federal government’s efforts to meddle in education haven’t worked, and that it’s time to start thinking about a new approach.