January 26, 2016

School choice programs can help alleviate inefficiency in education

By Chris Kieser Attorney

Many of the largest school districts in the United States spend an exorbitant amount of money on education. Newark, New Jersey spends over $30,000 per student, while New York City and Washington, DC, spend over $25,000. And spending for education is always politically popular: witness the success of state lotteries, justified on the grounds that the money will help the under-performing public schools. But despite the influx of money, these school systems maintain graduation rates barely over 60 percent. That startling inefficiency has many causes: not the least of which being the significant power of teachers’ unions, who bear much responsibility for the $22 million New York City paid its teachers not to work while awaiting disciplinary hearings in 2012.

School choice programs can help combat government inefficiency while giving kids a chance to avoid failing public schools (and providing those schools with much-needed competition). In recent years, five states have realized this and passed laws creating “Education Savings Accounts.” ESAs allow parents to use the money the state would have spent on their children’s education and direct it how the parents see fit. For instance, the money can be used to pay tuition at private schools, for tutoring services, or even to cover the costs of homeschooling. ESAs allow parents to avoid the one-size-fits-all world of public education and do what’s best for their children.

They could also save school districts a lot of money. For example, the average tuition at a private school in 2011-12 was $10,740 per year, and many schools are much cheaper. Even some of the most expensive private schools cost about as much as the nation’s largest cities pay to educate children in largely failing public schools. Homeschooling and other options can save even more money and prepare children for college more effectively than public schools. Just removing the government middleman from the equation cuts out much of the waste that makes education so expensive in the first place.

Allowing parents to take control of allocated money also increases competition, providing additional incentives for public school systems to improve. If students had the opportunity to take their money outside of the school system, public schools would have to compete to retain students rather than continue along the same path of futility. That could provide the impetus to rein in union power and spend more of the taxpayers’ money on improving educational quality.

Throwing money at the public schools will not improve their performance or the fortunes of the kids that attend them. But innovative school choice programs that transfer power from bureaucrats to parents can do both. Taxpayers should not pay for inefficient school systems that do not accomplish their purpose, and no children should be stuck in a failing school simply because they live in the wrong ZIP Code.

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