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School Choice: Another No Brainer

There are a few things politically where there are no downsides. The Keystone pipeline comes to mind as one of them. With the alleged environmental concerns evidently resolved to the satisfaction of the Governor of Nebraska and after two EPA studies indicating the same, it should come natural to Obama to now approve the pipeline. Of course, he will likely drag his feet, call for yet another EPA study and ultimately either kick the can down the road or ultimately deny it to pander to his liberal, environmentalist base. First, Canada needs to refine the oil and it is going to be refined somewhere one way or another. From an environmental standpoint, would it not make the greatest sense to refine it in a state of art American refinery rather than in Singapore or China where their environmental laws are lax or non-existent? Second, it creates jobs. Many of the opponents claim that it will only create maybe 5,000 permanent jobs and maybe 25,000 short-term jobs. By the math I am used to, 5,000 is greater than zero jobs and 25,000 is considerably more than zero jobs. Third, this meets the definition of a shovel-ready project that will be paid by private industry, not our tax dollars. I thought the goal of the Administration is to create jobs through the private sector by encouraging domestic investment. Isn’t TransCanada- the pipeline builder- a private enterprise investing in the United States? There are no downsides to this project.

Neither is there a downside to the concept of school choice. It in an unmistakable fact that public education is either stagnant at best or failing at worst with respect to academic achievement. Every year, despite massive infusions of federal tax dollars not to mention state tax dollars and local property tax receipts, we have not improved our performance. A bright line can be drawn to the point where we began to fall behind other developed countries when it comes to literacy and math and science performance. Once the federal government got involved in the business of K-12 education, we see the beginnings of the stagnation and decline. I am sure that ESEA was passed with the best of intentions in the 1960s, just as Bush’s No Child Left Behind was passed with the best intentions. But, the devil was in the details and like so many other areas, the federal government proved itself a terrible administrator over these good intentions. When you throw in empowered teacher unions to the mix, you achieve the quagmire we have today in education. A good case can be made that teacher unions- being unions- have the interests of the teachers first and foremost before those of the students. That is not to denigrate teachers, but their union representation sucks when it comes to looking out for the interests of the students as the citizens of Chicago discovered in September, 2012.

With regards to the states, expenditures on public K-12 education are the biggest item rivaled only be Medicaid. Obama’s idea of improving the public education system is typical liberal policy- throw more money at the problem. We constantly hear how making investments in public education now will reap huge rewards and dividends down the line. The only problem is that we have heard that line now since 1969 and the huge federal, state, and local expenditures on public education have only made the problem worse. When one considers that close to 30% of all federal expenditures goes to overhead, that is clearly a waste of money. Also, not every single dollar spent by the federal government even makes it into a classroom. On average, any school district in the United States receives only 9% of their revenue from the federal government, yet the federal government exerts close to 30% control over local school districts through edicts, mandates, guidelines, and regulations. Whole specialties have arisen around some of these. For example, many schools now have a curriculum development director- a job that used to fall to the either the local school board or the administration. In the public school where I substitute teach, there are at least three “teachers” walking around as “coaches” for other teachers in the area of literacy and math- “teachers” who never see a child.

So it is fitting that this is Education Choice Week, a fact I found out by watching Fox News as it would never be advertised in a public school setting. The fact is that most educational reform efforts that showed the greatest promise at the state/local level were ones that incorporated school choice into the mix. Whether we are talking about Washington, DC or Philadelphia or the state of Florida, where choice is given a chance, it usually has benefits. The best way to gauge this is through student performance on standardized tests like the NEAP or the SAT. In both cases, students in private schools generally perform better than their public school counterparts.

Nationally, the average per pupil cost of educating a child in grades K-12 (assuming no special needs) in a public school is $9,963 per year according to the Center for Education Statistics. The average cost of educating that same child, according to the same source, in a private school is $6,600 per year. That is a savings of $3,363 per pupil. Since the state or local government is going to pay for the education of that child anyway , would it not make greater sense to (1) spend the lesser amount while (2) giving the student and their parents a choice in where that child is educated? Of course, there are going to be private schools that will charge considerably more than $6,600. The DC voucher program was originally opposed by school officials there by arguing the cost. Eligible families could receive up to $7,500 in vouchers to send their children to a non-public school. The officials argued that the cost of private schooling in DC was five figures and that the $7,500 would not go that far. However, a study at the time showed that only 20% of DC private schools charged at least $10,000 a year with the average actually being around $4,800 a year- clearly not five figures, clearly below the national average, and clearly below the $7,500 in vouchers.

Just looking at the issue from the fiscal angle makes sense and should make this a no-brainer. As of 2012, there were 75.6 million students in K-12 schools. About 64.5 million were enrolled in public schools and 11.1 million in private schools. It needs to be noted at this point that charter schools are public schools, not private schools as many people believe. If just 20% of public school students were given a “choice,” that is 12.92 million students. Now assume a worst case scenario where a local private school in the area charged $7,500 per year and these 12.92 million kids received those vouchers for $7,500, and they transferred to the private school. That would result in a savings of $2,463 per pupil for a grand total savings of $31.83 billion annually. If the private school charged the $6,600 national average, then the savings would be $42.636 billion annually. Imagine that: a program that improves student performance for less money AND that gives a family hope and choice regarding their child’s education. The government is going to spend money on that child’s education anyway so it makes no sense to spend $9,963 per pupil per year when you can alleviate that burden through a voucher program.

There is a very good reason that private schools perform better than public schools, generally speaking. In a private school, parental involvement is greater and ask any teacher- public or private- and they will tell you that this criteria (parental involvement) is very important to student success. Of course the parent of a private school student is going to be more involved because the costs of that education are more proximate. While it may be true that smaller class size may play a role, the effect of class size on student performance is an area of debate. The magic number seems to be 19- anything over that number and you have a greater potential to run into trouble. However, there is generally no differences in academic achievement or performance between a class of 19 students and a class of 10 students. Thus, the smaller class sizes in private schools (generally speaking) is not a major determinant of their better academic achievement. Regardless, you will rarely see class sizes greater than 20 students in public schools. Many states mandate a maximum class size of 24 or 25 students.

Instead, because the costs are proximate, the parent of the private school student has a greater financial risk in that child’s education and is more likely to be involved. When the costs are spread out over many taxpayers, then that proximity is lost among an amorphous pool of people who contribute to any child’s education on any given day. The attitude becomes: “It is their job to educate my child; my taxes are paying their salary.” But, your tax dollar contribution towards that child’s public education nowhere approximates $6,600 or $7,500 or $9,963 per pupil per year. The same phenomena is seen with charter schools. The success rate of charter schools is about 50/50 and they are not necessarily the panacea to cure all educational ills. However, there does seem to be one factor that sets the successful ones apart- charter schools formed around like-minded students. A general charter school that is akin to a regular public school is less apt to succeed than a charter school centered around the performing arts, or science, or mathematics, or any other area of specialty. That is because the student AND the parents were given the choice and tend to be more goal-oriented.

What the teacher unions- not teachers- fear the most is competition from private, parochial and charter schools. But, it is a silly fear. The state is still likely going to pay, on average, $9,963 (lets just round that up to $10,000) per public school pupil regardless. They are going to reap savings from a voucher program since they will be paying less than $10,000 per pupil in a private school. Plus, they (the teachers) are likely to get smaller class sizes out of the deal. One of the biggest complaints I personally hear is about class size- “Geez…they put another kid in my room when I already have 18.” So, let’s see: smaller public school class sizes, parental choice, a $31-42 billion annual savings in expenditures, and a likely improvement in academic achievement plus we allow those at the lower end of the income strata an opportunity they previously lacked. Call it what you want, but this sounds like another no-brainer to me.

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