Democrats Need to Go Back to the Blackboard on Education Policy

Basketball-player-cum-Secretary-of-Education Arne Duncan recently outlined the president’s proposal to reform our nation’s schools, and for those who follow education policy, the plan was a frustrating let-down. Duncan’s plan consisted of two major points: increasing the resources put towards early childhood education and extending the school year. Both are failed strategies that will significantly raise educational costs without significantly improving results.

Early childhood education (education targeted at children younger than five) has been tried before. Begun in 1965, one such program, Head Start, currently spends $7 billion per year on roughly 900,000 students. Several economic studies, as well as a large scale, intensive congressional study, have concluded that the program has little or no lasting benefit to participants.

To justify extending the school year, Duncan claims that the U.S. educational system is at a “competitive disadvantage” versus the rest of the OECD, where the school years are roughly 10-20 days longer (OECD stands for “Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development,” a collection of economies that serve as a good basis of comparison with the U.S). But while it’s true that the U.S. school year is comparatively shorter, when it comes to actual hours of instruction that a student receives, the U.S. sits comfortably ahead of its competitors, providing twice as much instruction as Japan, Korea, or Spain.

The question that Duncan should be asking is this: if our educational system does a poor job during the 180 days it currently has with our children, why do we think that they’d do better with more of the same? There seems to be little relationship between the resources that are poured into schools and the results that come out. Sure, we could increase the school year by 20 days and thereby raise the costs of education by 11%, but we already spend twice as much per student as other industrialized nations and get nothing for our effort. Why would this be any different?

For all the talk behind increasing the school day or school year, hiring better credentialed teachers, or reducing class sizes, there really isn’t much evidence that these things help on the scale we need. Between 1960 and 2000, the pupil-teacher ratio went from 25.8 to 16.0, the percent of teachers with master’s degrees or better rose from 23.5 to 56.2, the median years of teacher experience climbed from 11 to 15, and our per-pupil expenditure skyrocketed from $2,235 to $7,591 (in 2000 dollars). School resources, on a per-student basis, let alone an absolute basis, went up by an astounding factor of 3.4, and what did we get for it? Reading and math stagnated, science dropped like a rock.

The results look even worse by international comparison: the Slovak Republic spends 75 percent less than us and tests just as well, and Finland (where, incidentally, formal education begins at age 7 and early childhood education is rare) spends 40 percent less than us and regularly tops the international metrics.

The real key to successful education is simple: fire bad teachers. The inconvenient truth for Democrats and their teacher-union allies is that teacher quality matters, even if the credentials that supposedly reveal quality (bachelors and masters degrees) aren’t of much use. If public schools 1) periodically reviewed teacher performance and 2) weeded out the deadwood, they could improve outcomes without spending a dime. Even more importantly, firing bad teachers would improve the effect of one of the most important spending areas there is: teacher training. Training bad teachers is a low return activity. Training good teachers is a high return activity. Weed out the bad teachers from the good before you sink your resources, and a mediocre dollar spent becomes a great dollar spent.

There is, in theory, nothing preventing a public school system from managing education well. In theory, public school administrators could plunk down the taxpayer’s dollar where it matters most. But in practice, they don’t. Once hired, teachers are very difficult to fire, and the parents who have the power to make trouble for an administrator find it easier to pull strings and get their students into the classes of the good teachers than fight the system.

The Democrat’s dream (as related by Sam Seaborn in a West Wing episode) is to turn schools into palaces where teachers command the salaries and respect commonly accorded to top lawyers and consultants. But this dream confuses the causality at play in the high-paid professional realms. Law, finance, and consulting et al. didn’t reach their rarefied heights of ability merely by paying their workers enormous sums — they reached that level by firing those who couldn’t hack it.

You reach pureness by removing impurities… the salaries in these prestigious sectors are in some ways an afterthought, a reflexive measure to prevent other firms from poaching the talent. Of course raising teacher salaries will increase the pool of teachers to select from, but there isn’t much of a point if you’re not tossing back teachers to begin with. Bad teachers like big salaries just as much as good teachers.

The case for school vouchers is as plain as this: the private market gives actors the incentive to do the right thing. When school administrators have their own money and jobs on the line, they’re going to be a lot more willing to rock the boat and cut dead weight loose. School vouchers don’t even need to cost the public money: as long as the voucher amount is less than the per-student cost at the public system, every student that switches from the public system to the private system will actually save public schools money.

And if that simple argument isn’t enough, consider this: if a poor, inner-city parent wants to give her child a top notch education, what options does she have in the today’s system? Instead of just paying the higher cost of education to get her child into a better school (as would be the case in a voucher system), she has to move to an entirely new school district. Instead of just paying for a better education for her child, she’d need to pay for EVERYTHING associated with that move — higher property costs, job transition, etc. We’ve bundled everything together, and the poor parents who are willing to pay for extra education a la carte don’t have that option. Opponents of vouchers base their opposition less on rational analysis than on a fundamental distrust of the market system. What they fail to recognize is that we’re already in a market system, but one that has been perversely set up in a way that keeps poor people locked into a cycle of poverty.

President Obama should answer the educational crisis in this country not by incrementally throwing more money at it, but instead by addressing the root cause of the problem, the mismanagement of our school resources. In the process, he should strongly consider school vouchers as the means to the end that all of us desire.