Even in inflation-adjusted dollars, per-pupil spending in the U.S. has quadrupled over the last 30 years, while student achievement has lagged far behind.
The problem, say two education scholars, is not a lack of funding but the way the government-run school system is structured. In Let’s Put Parents Back in Charge, a slim but informative guide to school reform, authors Joseph L. Bast and Herbert J. Walberg identify what is wrong with America’s current education system and offer comprehensive proposals for improving it.
Bast and Walberg show that the achievement problem is primarily limited to schools managed by the government. Private schools, although they typically spend much less money per student, have produced significantly better results. Students in government schools scored an average of 501 on the verbal section of the 2000 SAT college entrance exam, while their counterparts at religious schools averaged 529. Students at independent private schools did even better, earning an average score of 547.
Parents who choose private schools for their children are required to pay twice: once through taxes for the government schools and again for private tuition. For poor and working-class families, private schools are usually not a viable option. No matter how inadequate or dangerous their local public schools are, many parents have no choice but to send their children there.
Over the last few decades, the federal and state government funding that schools receive has increased dramatically. As a result, frivolous spending has surged, since schools are less careful with their budgets when the money is coming from Washington or the state capital rather than directly from local taxpayers.
This centralization of funding has naturally been accompanied by a centralization of control, and schools have had to spend more and more time complying with burdensome (and often politicized) regulations. With centralized decision-making, failed policies — such as California’s ill-fated adoption of the unsuccessful “whole language” method of teaching reading in place of the perennially effective phonics approach to literacy — affect more students and are harder to correct.
Another part of the problem, say the authors, is the enormous influence of teachers unions. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers together collect more than one billion dollars per year in dues, much of which (unbeknownst to many teachers) is spent on politics. The NEA branch in the state of Washington, for instance, spends about 70 percent of its dues on political activity. Teachers unions use their tremendous influence to oppose any reforms that would threaten their control, such as the revocation of policies that make it extremely difficult to fire incompetent teachers.
What can be done to reform such a flawed system? Bast and Walberg recommend a program of school vouchers, under which the money state and local governments collect for education would be awarded to parents rather than to schools. Parents would use these vouchers to pay for tuition at any eligible school—public or private, secular or religious—of their choosing. If a school did an unsatisfactory job, parents could withdraw their children (and the attendant voucher money) and send them elsewhere.
Last year, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that voucher programs are constitutional. The decision, Bast and Walberg observe, has encouraged many voters and elected officials to give vouchers serious consideration. So far, only three states and two cities have adopted voucher programs, and even these are quite limited in scope. But the tide seems to have turned in the direction of reform.
Let’s Put Parents Back in Chargeis a short, easy-to-follow book that explains the case for vouchers. The authors’ arguments are compelling, but many readers will be filled with questions as to how exactly a voucher system would work in real life.
Some of these questions are answered in the book’s last chapter, but readers would do well to learn more about vouchers from think tanks such as The Heartland Institute
A 2003 graduate of Valparaiso University, Sean Grindlay is currently an intern at Accuracy In Media.