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Congress has recessed for Easter and Passover and most school children across America have a break in classes to celebrate the holidays. The biggest Supreme Court decision relating to education since Brown vs. Board of Education is expected within a few months. The federal government has just expanded its role and funding for K-12 education in America. At the same time, most states and local governments are at least looking to freeze spending after years of big increases because state and local budgets are coming up short.
With all of that as important background, what is the condition of public education today? In a word: poor. Taxpayers aren’t receiving value for their dollars; children are being robbed of a quality education; and the nation is settling for a less educated workforce than the one it needs and paid for.
The public education system is a monopoly. The market that it monopolizes is the market for free k-12 education. Not surprisingly, it behaves like a monopoly. It delivers low quality services at high prices. That’s why spending more money on education has not worked for the past twenty-five years and will not work in the future.
Those of us who believe in choice and competition have done a poor job of explaining why the public education system is failing. We tend to bemoan the education bureaucrats and the teacher’s unions without properly explaining why public monopolies lead to poor service. We spend almost $400 billion a year on K-12 education in this country. That is an enormous investment of taxpayer resources, but it hasn’t led to a world-class public education system. We’ve increased spending rapidly over the past twenty years --- over a seventy percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars -- but no one would argue that we’ve seen comparable increases in the quality of education no matter how you measure it.
Unfortunately, the biggest component of the new federal solution to fixing education is more money – and lots of it. Federal spending could increase from $23 billion this year to over $75 billion in just six years. With this new spending comes increased accountability, but the accountability of local school districts is to the federal government, not parents and teachers. When the rubber hits the road – when a principal could take an action he or she knows will help the student but would threaten federal funding because it ignores some federal accountability mandate – who will the principal be more inclined to please? The history of public education suggests the parents and kids will take a back seat. And with the federal government offering even more money, the incentives will follow the cash.
Does this mean nothing can be done or is being done to effectively improve education? I don’t believe that at all. Instead, I believe we need a consistent, persistent effort to chip-away at the public monopoly. As William Bennett has pointed out, 32 states and the District of Columbia now support charter schools. Over 500,000 students have at least partially been freed from the monopoly. These schools are forced to show results or die.
At the same time, I think those of us who want more choice and competition should also work within the system to try and force change. That has two benefits: You can make marginal improvements, and the lengths the education establishment will go to block good ideas exposes how out of touch they are with what parents want from our schools.
We can force accountability through political rather than market pressure. For example, CSE activists in Texas are leading a campaign to ensure that the over 236 social studies, history, and economic textbooks scheduled for adoption in Texas later this year instill patriotism in students and are free from propaganda. To date, Texas CSE has recruited over 300 activists to review the textbooks under consideration by the Texas State Board of Education (Texas SBOE).
Just last week, Texas CSE staff and activists testified at a hearing before the Texas SBOE on a proposal to move up the deadline for public comments to July 5 from August 21. CSE activists encouraged committee members not to further limit the ability for citizens to provide comments on the textbooks under review. The importance of Texas CSE's action goes beyond Texas state boundaries. Texas and California are the largest purchasers of textbooks and consequently textbooks adopted in these states are sold nationwide. In 2001, Texas CSE activists were instrumental in ensuring accuracy in science textbooks.
Proposals to provide tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools deserve support. It gives some parents more options by making private education marginally more affordable. With more options for parents comes more competition for the public schools.
All of these approaches help chip away at the monopoly and we should aggressively support a multi-faceted strategy. None, by themselves, solve the problem, but taken together can make progress towards competition and accountability. The more pressure we put on, and the more experience we gain in fighting the educational bureaucracy, the more prepared we will be for the really big fight coming after the Supreme Court decision later this year.
If the Supreme Court approves the use of vouchers, which I believe they will, then we will need to be prepared to fight this battle in state legislatures and local school boards all across America. The defenders of the status quo are prepared to protect their monopoly. Are we prepared to break it up?