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American schools are falling behind on the world stage in numerous tests of international students. While we spend more money per student than any other country in the world, we are frequently only in the middle of the pack when the results come in. The evidence suggests that this can only mean that we are spending our money less efficiently than any other country. This brings up a question that politicians have been arguing about for as long as the U.S. has been a country. What is the best way to fund public schools? For this I looked toward something that runs very efficiently in America, the economy.
Despite the recent economic downturn, America continues to have the world's largest, most powerful, and richest economy, and it is run on a very simple principle: self-determination. Or in economic terms, the free market. So why not take this classic, successful American tradition and apply the free market to public schools? This approach is known as a voucher system. While there are many variations in the way that it is done, the basic idea is always the same. Vouchers promote competition among schools by giving parents the choice of what school to send their children to. The parents will then use their voucher money from the government to send their children to that school and the schools will compete among each other for more students, and therefore more money. With each school competing with each other only the best schools will stay open. This method with also get parents more involved in their child's education, something that is universally seen as a critical factor in how well students do in school. The voucher system needs to be implemented on the national level, along with research to find the best way to use them.
The voucher system is not a new idea. Milton Freidman brought the idea into the mainstream in the 1950's. This idea was immediately faced with large amounts of criticism. First of all, many people cringed at the idea of public schools competing with private schools on the same level. I believe that this fear is exactly what we need. According to a study of the Milwaukee school choice program, "graduation rates for Milwaukee parental choice program students are about ten percentage points higher than in Milwaukee public schools." (Warren). While the study does not examine grades or student achievement, simply graduating more students from high school should be considered a huge accomplishment. Not only did the schools in Milwaukee's school choice program graduate more students, but they did so at a lower cost. A study done by professors from Harvard and the University of Houston showed "after three years of enrollment, students scored 5 percentile points higher; after four, they scored 10.7 points higher" (Greene, Peterson, and Du). The same study also finds that of schools in the voucher system "the per pupil cost in the private schools was less." This shows that giving parents a choice in schools causes the schools to be more efficient in how they spend, while at the same time increasing the graduation rate and bringing about a slight increase in grades.
A second criticism of the voucher system is the fear of too much government involvement in the school system. Many parents believe that the curriculum of a school should be decided by local governments, such as state and county government bodies. Fortunately these criticisms of federal involvement can be circumvented. If the money to fund the schools comes from the state government, then the state would provide the curriculum. While some money still has to come from the federal government, this money could come with no strings attached in the form of a block grant. The states could receive these grants and send the money down to the schools. The voucher system would also require less money as a whole, as they increase efficiency in the school system.
So how does the voucher system promote efficiency? This is a very simple question to answer when looking strictly at the economic theory of efficiency. In my voucher plan, this is how I would distribute the money, and promote efficiency in schools. Each family that would register how many school age children they have in the household to their state government. For example, let's say that each child would receive the average per pupil expenditure, $9,266 for education (Fast Facts). A family of two would report to the state government that they have two children that would be going to school, and tell the state what school they would be attending. The state would then send the money to the school that the family chose. If the student tuition is more than $9,266, the parents would pay the remaining sum. If the tuition was less than $9,266, the parents would receive a refund from the state for the remaining amount in the form of taxable income. Due to the potential of extra income, the parents would only choose schools that were more efficient. Because this potential income is small, and taxable, parents would not necessarily focus on the cheapest school, but the most education for every dollar they spend. Schools that offered the best combination of education and price would have more kids, and more money. Eventually poor schools will shut down and only the elite schools will remain.
Elite schools in every city that operate very efficiently are a great thing. But as I said before, parental involvement is key in education. So how does the voucher system affect parents? According to Dr. Philip Vassallo, parents with students involved in the Milwaukee school choice program:
(1) read with or to their children 10 to 15 percent more often, (2) worked with their children on math homework 5 to 10 percent more often, (3) worked with their children on writing or penmanship 10 to 20 percent more often, (4) watched an educational television program with their children
5 to 10 percent more often, and (5) participated with their children in a sports activity up to 10 percent more often (Vassallo).
Parents that are given a choice in their child's education are also more involved with the school itself. In Milwaukee, parents who choose their kids schools are contacted by the schools much more frequently about their child's academic performance, their child's behavior, school volunteer work, and school fundraising (Vassallo). In California, a shocking 88% of parents attended parent teacher conferences when their children were enrolled in Charter schools (Vassallo). Parents are also more likely to be satisfied with their child's school. In a study of the Washington D.C. voucher system, the U.S. Department of Education concluded that 74% of parents who put their kids in the D.C. school program gave their school a grade of an A or B. This is up 19% from those who stayed with their public school (Silverberg). Parents are also 2% more likely to say that their school is safe when they choose their school (Silverberg).
This makes it obvious that transparency in education is critical for parents in their child's education. My voucher system would require that every school in the U.S. give their students standardized tests so parents can compare results. Instead of the current system where tests are given by the federal government, these tests would come from the state, and published on a central website. In order to get more students, schools would also advertise their curriculum to parents, similar to how colleges mail information to perspective students to recruit them. Parents could then see what each school teaches and how well they teach it in order to make their decision.
So now we see that vouchers increase parent involvement, increase grades, and promote efficiency. Yet all of these improvements will cost money, possibly even necessitate a large tax increase. How many people are willing to pay extra taxes if they become necessary? Is there truly enough public support to install and keep a voucher system in place long enough to see the effects? Many seniors and homeschooling parents believe that very little tax dollars should go to education. Despite these groups of people, I believe that there could be enough public support. Parents care very much about their kids' education. Paul E. Peterson, Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, notes in his essay "Monopoly and Competition in American Education" that "where expenditures on education are higher, property values are enhanced" (Peterson). He goes on to say,"If school services deviate too much from parental wishes, some families will leave and it will become more difficult to attract newcomers to the community. Property values will fall," (Peterson). According to Peterson's research, not only do people want to live in good schools, but they are willing to pay the extra taxes that come with putting more money towards education. Not only are they willing to pay the extra taxes, but the prospect of the good education is so appealing that they ignore the extra tax cost and pay more for the property. Yet this only solves part of the problem. America does not have a history of dramatic change in such large public policies. After all, I am suggesting a complete overhauling of the American education system, the system that produces some of the greatest entrepreneurs and business people in the world today. Not only does the public have to face the prospect of higher taxes at the outset of the program (which I believe they will), but they have to be sold on the idea first, which could prove to be very difficult.
If the voucher program is so great, then why has it not been implemented? There are many roadblocks on the way to education reform. One reason vouchers have been meet with criticism is simply the sheer size of the program. Just mentioning vouchers conjures up images in the minds of voters of large government control and massive new spending programs. Another roadblock to reform is misunderstanding. Many people think that vouchers are only given to low income families. This causes a lot of criticism because of the appearance that vouchers help only the poor while leaving the middle class to pay more for their child's education. While vouchers do indeed help the poor by giving them the chance at the same education as richer kids, each child is given the same amount to spend by the government. The only difference in cost between low income and middle class families comes from which tax bracket they fall into, which decides how much they pay in taxes and therefore how much they put into the voucher system. This is already the case today, as higher income families pay more in taxes and therefore pay more for public schooling.
Another reason given for blocking vouchers is the fear of widening the gap between low and high income students. The idea is that by giving high income families the same or nearly the same amount of money in a voucher they will be able to use those funds to go to their already expensive private schools. These schools would use the extra cash to better educate the students there, further widening the education gap between classes. It is the basic "the rich get richer" theory. This theory is exactly what the free market system resolves. While it is possible that at first the education gap will widen, many schools will start to underbid each other, while still providing the same high level of education, in an effort to recruit more students and more money. Eventually the education gap, while never being completely gone, will narrow between low income and high income families. The main reason the gap would remain is because, like universities, some schools would give a very high level of education, but with a very high price.
With these various theories of the effects of vouchers floating around, it would be important in the implementation of any form of voucher system to launch a public campaign explaining the system in order to gain support. Once the general public realizes the benefits school choice brings to education, they will want to at least try the system. This type of public information campaign would be very difficult due to the biggest threat to school choice systems.
The biggest of threat to school choice are teacher unions. As Paul Peterson says, "creating competition among public schools and forcing them to improve to survive has proven too threatening to the powerful public school monopoly" (Peterson). When President Reagan's Secretary of Education, William Bennet, made a proposal for vouchers for low-income families, the National Education Association became outraged. Mary Futrell of the NEA said of the idea "Vouchers are a hoax, a guise for funneling public monies to private schools. When this strategy is defended on the grounds that it will unleash the potential of 11 million disadvantaged children, the hoax becomes hypocritical, odious, and cruel" (Peterson). This statement was made about a program made to give money to poor families so that they could have the same education opportunities as rich families!
Seeing why educators and their unions would try to block education reform such as vouchers is simple. Right now, public school teachers have a near monopoly on the education system. Any reform would threaten their monopoly, teacher salaries, and in some cases, their jobs. By introducing free market principles teachers would be subject to very rigorous standards by their employers, as the employers would be looking to cut any inefficiencies, including employees. Many people, however, have little sympathy for teachers, as most people are subject to this kind of scrutiny at work everyday. The good teachers should want to implement the voucher system, as they would stand to benefit greatly. As the demand for good teachers rises with the need for efficiency, so does the salaries of those good teachers. As teacher salaries rise, the job becomes more attractive to the best workers. Those who would normally go into high paying jobs such as engineering and medical fields would find teaching another high paying option, and therefore more talented workers would become teachers.
Many people argue that this evidence of a positive effect of the free market on education, such as better teachers and more efficiency, have never been tested on a large scale in schools. This assumption is wrong. America's universities and colleges have been using the free market system for as long as they have been in existence. Universities in the U.S. do not enjoy the monopolistic benefits of their public lower education counter parts. Each University competes against each other to not only provide the best education possible at the lowest price, but also for the best students in the world. The best teachers from around the globe are recruited to U.S. universities, and they are paid high salaries. Due to the need to stay competitive in costs, American institutions operate as efficiently as possible. We can see this cost effect by comparing University and public high school cost. The average high school student costs the government $9,266 to educate per year (Fast Facts). This year, I will pay the University of North Dakota $6,846 for my tuition costs for what I expect to be a more rigorous year of education than a year of high school. The introduction of the free market into education saved $2,420.
As in any capitalistic market there are different ideas on how to attract customers in the education business. Many universities have gone the route of putting the quality of education well before the cost hoping to attract more students than the institutions who look to put more emphasis on low cost. The result in the quality of education has been incredible. According to The Higher Education magazine 58 of the top 200, including 11 of the top 15, universities are in the United States (World University Rankings). This is not to say that other countries around the world do not use free market principles in higher education, but in America, where capitalism is especially ingrained in the psyche of the minds of the people who run these institutions, have become the model for the rest of the world. Imagine the impact on education if we could make our high school education system as effective as our higher education system.
The benefits of school choice and vouchers are very clear. Not only do they increase grades, they help to get parents more involved in their child's education and would bring America back to the forefront in education at all levels. School choice also would bring a rise in teacher salaries, bring better teachers into schools, and force schools to become more accountable. All of this is accomplished while costing less money than the current system. In the long run this better system of education has the potential to boost the American economy by creating better students to go into engineering and sciences. Just as the increase in engineering and science education in Japan has led to the production of better consumer goods such as electronics and vehicles, and more scientific advancements such as the bullet train, the American economy could see a boost in its economy with a more educated populace, similar to the dot com bubble (without the crash). Many countries are gaining ground on our superpower status. If the United States wants to remain the world's lone superpower we must equal our competitors investment in education, and their investment in the future.