Over 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty. In the years that followed, 92 separate federal programs were created to combat poverty. In 2012, the most recent year for census data, $799 billion dollars were disbursed through these programs. Yet 50 years of “War on Poverty” has done almost nothing to lower the percentage of families who receive assistance. In fact, children from low-income families represent the majority of public school students in all but two of fifteen Southern states.
So are we investing in education? We are definitely spending. Between 1992 and 2012, public education spending in the US grew by 100%. Since student population grew at a much lower rate, one would assume that students are receiving more services. However, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics, this isn’t the case. In the 59 years between 1950 and 2009, the number of K-12 public school students in the United States increased by 96 percent. In this same period, however, the number of full-time school employees rose by 386%. Administrators and non-teaching staff saw growth of 702%, more than seven times the increase in students. How has adding so many non-teaching public employees affected outcomes? Have we seen an increase in student achievement? The answer is no. The increases in public school employment do not appear to have caused any positive returns to students as measured by test scores and graduation rates.
How much is being spent in our school districts and what would happen if we could free some of these tax dollars and let them follow our children into the free market? When we begin conversations on passing legislation that will offer parents choice, the local school leaders and their political friends race to circle the wagons around their precious buckets of tax dollars that fund their considerable salaries. Who could blame them? In urban areas that surround Atlanta and other large cities, the local school district is usually one of the top employers in the area. It is also one of the most powerful, with an plethora of paid on-call lobbyists from organizations like PTA, NEA, AFT, and NAACP.
How much money are we talking about? $545 billion in local, state and federal tax dollars will be used to fund K-12 public education for the year 2015. With this kind of money in our education fund, one would expect that all parents would have access to enroll their children in any school they select. Unlike Americans that receive entitlements such as Medicaid, EBT, and housing assistance, most parents have no real choice when it comes to enrolling their kids in school. Medicaid recipients can choose any physician that accepts federal payment. If they don’t like their doctor, they can select another. EBT cardholders can purchase almost any food imaginable for their family. Some recipients shop local farmers markets where their dollars count double, while others purchase ready-to-eat fast food. Even the stigma of living in a low-income housing project is becoming a thing of the past. Most families now receive Section 8 vouchers, which they present to the landlord and choose life in an apartment, condo or even a single family house. All these government programs offer consumers the opportunity to purchase goods and services in the private sector. Why are our children denied the chance to do the same? Why not give their parents a card or a voucher to use per pupil funds at the school of their preference?
Millions of children in this country attend schools that haven’t performed well in decades. Yet the bureaucrats that oversee schools in these districts (some earning six-figure salaries) certainly don’t want competition. In every state, teacher unions have paid lobbyists on hand during the general assembly to dole out contributions to politicians that will defend their failing systems from meaningful legislation that would offer parents school choice. When asked what type of choice they’d like to have available, parent answers vary. Andrew, parent of two, has urged lawmakers in his state to start a voucher program. The lack of good schools nearby changed his life dramatically. “I wanted a top-notch education for my children. I was forced to sell a home I loved to move to another county just to get my children into a school that was acceptable.” He explains that the cost of living is much higher in his new neighborhood, and he now has to sit in traffic for hours each day commuting to work. Is it worth the time and money? He thinks so. According to US News and World Report, his new school is ranked #8 in Georgia and #236 in the nation out of 30,000 schools.
Charter schools are often the first school choice option to become available via state legislative effort. There are currently 42 states that have passed legislation to allow at least some charter schools. Charters are allowed exceptions to the rules in return for greater accountability. If they do not meet their goals by the deadline stated in their contract, they lose their charter status and in most cases will be closed. Charter schools are funded with tax dollars (although many receive less than traditional public schools) and cannot exclude students for any reason. If the number of students that enroll is greater than the number of seats, the school conducts a public lottery. In areas with poor performing schools, the demand for a seat in a charter school can be extremely high, as seen in the education documentary Waiting for Superman. Kirk Lunde, an education consultant in the Atlanta area, followed the startup of a unique charter school in his district closely. The mission of the Tapestry Charter School is “to offer an inclusive, individualized learning environment that is academically engaging, both for neurotypical students and those on the autism spectrum, and to create a positive school culture that empowers all students to take possession of their innate talents and become creative builders of their own future”. Lunde recently enrolled his younger son in the school. When asked why, Lunde responded, “We chose to send our son to a charter school because our local district’s class sizes were too big. He would have been ignored by teachers until he was overstimulated and acted out. Also, we knew from our older son’s experiences that our local middle school was just moving students along. There was no student engagement or excitement in the classroom.”
Another choice for parents that is available to students in certain states is vouchers. Economist Milton Friedman’s 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education”, launched modern efforts to use public dollars for private school tuition in hopes that competition among schools would lead to increased student achievement and decreased education costs. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia provide state-funded school vouchers to qualifying students. State voucher legislation determines which students qualify and how much funding they receive. Some states offer vouchers for low-income families, while others offer it to students in failing schools. Voucher laws can offer families that can’t afford private school the opportunity to choose a unique educational program for their child. One drawback is that the voucher often does not cover the entire tuition. In such cases, the parent is left funding the difference. Some states, such as Georgia, offer vouchers only to special needs students. In cases where the public school cannot or will not meet the needs of a child, the parents can seek a private school that can. V. Kirk enrolled her son, who had an IEP with the public school system, in a parochial school in Atlanta under the SB-10 program, which allows students to use funds to attend a private school. “I moved him from the public school due to concerns relating to whether he would be getting the education I feel he would require in order to succeed in life,” says Kirk.
Education Savings Accounts are another choice that is somewhat new to the education landscape. Dr. Matthew Ladner, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, calls ESAs “the iPhone” of the school choice movement. Tennessee and Arizona have both passed laws to allow ESAs. An ESA is a “partial voucher;” it lets the parent spread tax dollars as they wish. Funds are loaded onto a card which is presented to approved vendors for educational goods and services. ESAs can be used by parents to pay for textbooks, tutoring, field trips and support services. They offer the most choice, but, like vouchers, don’t always cover all the costs of education. One big reason that ESAs are superior to vouchers is they drive competitive pricing. In states that offer vouchers, private school tuition usually is set as close as possible to the amount of the voucher. A thrifty parent with an ESA can search for a deal on tuition and save the balance of the ESA for college tuition.
Of these three very different school choice options, one thing remains the constant-the public education empire continues to wage war on school choice. When a child leaves a traditional school, administrators try to cling to as many of his tax dollars as possible. Many charter schools receive only federal and state tax dollars, but no local taxes (about two-thirds of what traditional schools receive). Parents with ESAs receive about one third to one half the tax dollars students in traditional public schools receive and parents with vouchers receive different amounts as well, depending on what state they reside in.
It is clear that in order to drive school choice forward, more parents will be required to hold legislators and school districts accountable for poor performance. The public education system is funded with our tax dollars. We deserve to have safe schools, innovative classrooms and motivated teachers. We’ve all got to take a good, honest look at our local school districts and ask ourselves if the funds used for the 702% increase in non-teaching staff could be better utilized. Would the taxes go further if they were used for vouchers that enable students to go to a school that meets their needs? Should they go to fund raises for top performing teachers at charter schools? These questions have to be asked by everyone that is invested in the future of our children. Our education system won’t improve until we demand laws that provide the means for parents to exercise choice in education. Education is the only effective way to win the War on Poverty. We can win the war by opening the education market to allow parents to choose schools in the free market. Whether poor or rich, all Americans can choose their doctor, what to put in their grocery cart and where to live. When will we step up and refuse to accept that we have no choice in where our children are educated?