According to polls, most of us believe that “insufficient funding” is the most important problem facing our public schools. Teachers’ unions, school boards and education experts are not surprised. They have created the perception. Nor are our political leaders surprised. They count on our fear of not spending enough to educate our children. Beginning with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, we have not let them down. Each year since, under the guise of progressive reforms to improve education, we have relentlessly increased the education budget.
But the spending hasn’t worked. Indeed, the spending is the crisis. More than 40 years of lavish progressive reforms has reduced the world’s best public education system to an uncontrollably expensive, adequate one. The government’s principal achievement has been to create an arrogant, incompetent bureaucracy whose self-indulgence is exceeded only by its ability to squander and misappropriate tax money. Our children are being condemned to academic mediocrity. Most are unprepared for college, many for the workforce or adulthood. Parents are being swindled. Taxpayers are being bilked. By every measure, the “improvements” have failed.
What’s startling about this assessment is not the assessment. It’s that the information supporting it is provided by the U.S. Department of Education – the source for almost all of the statistics discussed in this essay. It is unambiguous, conclusive data that our politicians and education experts fail to understand. Otherwise, they would see a glowing example annually illustrating the ineffectiveness and insidiousness of government’s expanding role and authority. They would see nothing that would predict less futility in future progressive reforms, not to mention the even greater intrusions in the works for health care and energy.
I graduated from high school in 1967, when, up to that point, most people believed public funding for education was adequate. Combined federal, state and local spending was $31.9 billion. We were wrong. Apparently, our education system was a fiscal shambles and President Johnson’s Great Society was already coming to the rescue. ESEA, Public Employee Labor Relations Acts, the founding of the U.S. Department of Education and progressive reformers (such as psychologists, sociologists and cognitive scientists) dramatically changed the public education landscape. The old, locally controlled system that practiced traditional teaching methods, unencumbered by inane union rules was replaced by an enormous, centralized bureaucracy employing progressive methods, burdened by union contracts for extravagant defined-benefit pensions, early-retirement packages, boosted pension annuity payments, free healthcare, lowered retirement ages, job protection and degree- and seniority-based pay scales. Today public funding for elementary and secondary education has skyrocketed to over $553 billion annually.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, spending per student (see Figure 1) has more than tripled since 1967 – from around $3,000 to almost $10,000 by 2005. We spend more on education than most countries in the industrialized world. In 2000, we spent $10,240 per student from elementary school through college. The average spending among wealthy industrialized nations was a little over $6,000. Yet students from these countries do better academically, scoring much higher in international testing. For example, on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, the U.S. came in 16th out of 30 countries in science, 23rd in mathematics.
By 12th grade, significant deficiencies in reading, writing, mathematics and science remain. Almost half of the students entering college need remedial courses. Hundreds of thousands of them must first attend community colleges, further increasing the cost of basic education. Based on 2006 ACT college entrance examination scores, only 21% of students applying to four-year institutions were ready for college-level work in all four areas tested: reading, writing, math and biology.
Once the federal government and educrats stepped in to improve our schools, quality deteriorated. Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores began to decline immediately and, after more than four decades of “fixing” public education, have never recovered to 1967 levels (see Figure 2). Indeed, 1967 was a very good year by comparison, much better than any of the years of the1970’s and beyond. During the 1970s and early 1980s, when SAT scores declined most rapidly, public school enrollment was decreasing, while progressive reforms (such as Outcome-base Education (OBE)) and the number of teachers was increasing. The pupil/teacher ratio declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 17.9 in 1985. And between 1980 and 2005, instructional aides and instructional coordinators increased by 114% and 131%, respectively, bringing the equivalent pupil/teacher ratio to 8.
Progressive methods have failed regardless of increasingly lower pupil/teacher ratios. Teachers in 1967, teaching 22.3 students each, produced a crop of 11th and 12th graders who averaged 1059 on SAT’s. With the much larger number of teachers in 2005, the average score of 1024 was 35 points below the 1967 score.
Even Title I of the ESEA, the federal government's largest K-12 program, has failed miserably to lift the academic level of poor students. For example, 77% of 4th graders in urban high poverty schools read “below basic" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). And the average black and Hispanic 17-year-old student has NAEP scores in math, science, reading, and writing that are equivalent to average 13-year-old white students.
To appreciate the magnitude of the waste, if someone gave you $10,000 each year for each of your school-aged children, you will have received $120,000 for each child by high school graduation. If you had four children and sent them to a private school for $4,000 per year, you could buy a new car each year with the $24,000 left over. However, putting the money into a college fund instead would be a better choice. Chances are you would need it. Private school students are 1.5 times more likely to go to college and are more than twice as likely to graduate from college than public school students.
Defenders of our existing system would argue that high quality private schools are too expensive for middle and low-income families. Both of these claims (available and affordable high quality private schools) are false. According to the most recent NAEP report, private school students performed better on average than public school students in all subjects tested during 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2005. This included 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students tested in reading, mathematics, science, and writing.
And, although such performance is often associated with elite, expensive schools, they are not the norm. In 2000 the average tuition for private elementary schools nationwide was $3,267 and 41% of private elementary and secondary schools (more than 27,000 nationwide) charged less than $2,500. Less than 21% charged more than $5,000.
Not surprisingly, the government system is a model of waste and inefficiency. With as many teachers as are employed by U.S. public schools, they only represent half of the total personnel. All union members, both teachers and non-teachers are paid significantly more than their private school counterparts. For example, the average salary for private school teachers in 2004 was $34,700. The average salary for public school teachers was $44,400. When benefits are included, public school teachers make almost 50% more than private school teachers. Yet they do significantly less real teaching than teachers in the private sector. Thanks to progressive reforms and labor contracts, only 41% of their time is devoted to core academic subjects. Public school teachers have become chaperons, facilitators and counselors, most of them compliantly following a politically correct agenda that places social behavior above academic achievement.
Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman once commented “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand.” To illustrate the propinquity, a federal district judge ordered the Kansas City, Missouri School District (KCMSD) to remediate the city's predominately black schools and increase student test scores. Kansas City was to show what could be done with the financial resources to do the job right. City and state taxes were raised to give KCMSD everything education experts asked for. It was to be a model for educational reformers throughout the nation.
In 2000, five years and $2 billion later, the KCMSD spent more money per pupil than any of the 280 largest districts in the country, yet failed 11 performance indicators (test scores, dropout rate, attendance, etc.) and lost its academic accreditation for the first time in its history. With unlimited money and educational resources, they created a sand shortage in 5 years.
Anyone except an elected official or an education expert would see at least two obvious ways to vastly improve, perhaps fix, public education. First, simply follow what U.S. Department of Education data clearly indicate - scrap whatever we are doing now and go back to whatever we were doing in 1967 or earlier. Our students would receive much better educations and education taxes would be reduced by 70%. Second, privatize education. Private schools do much better than the vast majority of public schools for less than half of the cost. School choice (voucher and tuition scholarship) programs have worked wherever they have been tried. In fact, not only have participating students shown increased academic achievement, through competition, neighboring public schools have improved as well.
Alas, it’s not meant to be. President Obama and the educrats want more. They want a lot more – unfortunately, a lot more of the same. They disdain traditional teaching methods and dread vouchers or any such system that might reduce the power of the NEA and AFT, which have both the Democrat-controlled House and Senate in a stranglehold. Thus, despite staggering amounts already spent and government statistics showing the utter futility of spending more, they believe public education is egregiously under funded. They see a crisis. And they are expecting us, again, to foot the bill.
But public education is grossly over funded. That it is grossly underperforming is a disgrace exceeded only by the fact that politicians, education experts and teachers unions are the principal beneficiaries of the excessive spending. They have been doing to public education what the UAW has done to the automobile industry. The only difference is that they get their bailout every five years, when Congress reauthorizes ESEA, with little or no opposition. In other words, it’s reauthorized, five years later there’s a sand shortage and they vote for another, even bigger, one. To date, that comes to eight consecutive, record-breaking sand shortages.
We are approaching the ninth. President Obama plans to “recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries and give them more support.” With one teacher or staff member for every 8 students, the existing army is already bloated. Recruiting another, assuming there is an army of idle, qualified teachers waiting in the wings, makes less sense than the policies that have failed public education since 1967. This leads me to a third way to improve education. Tell President Obama and the bureaucratic behemoth of public education to pound sand.