To listen to the Department of Education and the laments of public school system officials you may be left with the impression that our schools are impoverished and can only survive by cutting arts and sports programs in order to stay within budget. Statistics point out a different reality: while we now spend private-school amounts on public school students, performance results are getting worse, not better.
As I’ll argue later on, this decreasing performance has big implications for our industry. For now, let’s start by addressing the overall performance issue using the chart below:
Spending More and Getting Less
Since 1970, K-12 spending has gone up astronomically (from approximately $55,000 per student to $165,000) while test scores have remained flat or gone down.The author of the Cato Institute graph above, Andrew Coulson, remarked in a tongue and cheek manner that if music players had suffered the same cost/performance trends we’d all be lugging around cassette boom boxes, but they’d now cost almost $1,800. Aren’t you glad we didn’t give tax-funded state monopolies to 19th century Victrola manufacturers?
According to a CBS News report, the United States spends more than other developed nations on our students’ education each year. Still, the U.S. routinely trails its rival countries in performance on international exams despite being among the heaviest spenders on education (1).
An education group based in Minneapolis called Better-Ed.Org has been on a crusade to educate families via billboards and direct mailers in the inner city about the crisis they face in city public schools—large sums being spent on students yielding extremely poor results. This group’s objective is to build grassroots demand for school choice, since it is the poor families that have little choice in education because their financial situation does not give them the option of private school.
Urban Versus Suburban
When reviewing the 41 school districts in Minnesota, if we look at the spending at the highest ranking school (suburban Mahtomedi) and compare it to the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts that rank near the bottom, you see a pattern that is common throughout the country—urban public schools doing poorly and suburban schools ranking near the top.
As the chart on the left makes clear, spending more does not result in better education. However, school administrations and teachers’ unions still don’t offer any solutions for improvements other than more spending. Creating competition between schools would break the complacency that has been prevalent for decades. One way to do this is by offering school vouchers for inner city families to choose the school they want their children to attend. This is the kind of change that BetterEd.Org advocates, to bring equal opportunity to all children versus inner city families having to settle for a local public school that yields poor academic results.
Family Structure a Factor
Another trend that demonstrates the difference between urban and suburban schools is the ballooning percentage of single-parent homes, which a decade ago was almost unheard of but is now a growing dilemma.
Consider this: 68% of black women who gave birth in 2013 were unmarried, compared to 11% of Asian women, 43% of Hispanics and 26% of non-Hispanic whites, as reported by the Huffington Post.
In 2015, 1 in 4 children under the age of 18—a total of 17.4 million children—are being raised without a father and nearly half (45%) live below the poverty line. A primary difference between urban students and suburban students like those attending Mahtomedi School District is that the students at suburban schools are much more likely to have two-parent families.
The Brookings Institution, the Washington-based nonprofit public policy organization, has studied the issue of poverty extensively and drilled down to “three rules for staying out of poverty.” Those rules say you can avoid poverty by:
- Graduating from high school.
- Waiting to get married until after age 21 and not have children until after being married.
- Having a full-time job.
Further, Brookings reports that if you do all three things, your chance of falling into poverty is just 2%. Meanwhile, you’ll also have a 74% chance of being in the middle class. These rules apply to all races and ethnic groups. Breaking these rules is becoming more commonplace, unfortunately, for all racial groups, according to Brookings.
Ron Haskins, co-author of the Brookings study, notes that it’s time to emphasize the role that personal decisions have on staying out of the poorhouse. According to Haskins, there is no shortage of government safety nets. A typical child from a poor family has access to government income and housing support for their family, health care, preschool education, public school education, college loans and scholarships and employment and training programs, to name a few of the available government programs.
Haskins argues that personal decisions trump anything the government can do. Without relentless emphasis on personal responsibility, the billions of dollars we spend on government programs will continue to produce mediocre results and opportunity in America will continue to stagnate.
The Role of Unions
Besides the impact of family structure on education, school unions, generally averse to change, are another force to be reckoned with.The documentary “Waiting for Superman” told the sad tale of inner city students hoping to get placed via a lottery drawing into a charter school, but of the hundreds hoping to gain entry, charter schools only had a handful of openings.
The worst school district in the country as measured by performance—Washington, D.C.—hired Michelle Rhee to turn things around. Rhee cut 100 jobs from the central office, closed 23 schools and fired 25% of the principals.
The Washington Teachers Union and the national American Federation of Teachers opposed her changes, finding her proposals so offensive they wouldn’t allow a vote on the matter but rather pressured the DC school system to dismiss Rhee as superintendent. After her dismissal, Rhee said that “It’s all about the adults,” noting that the union would not alter tenure, she couldn’t extend the school day and the union would not allow merit pay for good teacher because to the union, a teacher is a teacher is a teacher—no good teachers versus poor teachers.
Rhee went on to say that the bureaucracies we have set up to further education have become impediments to change. The DC schools, like many city schools, have become dropout factories, with kids pushed through the system but essentially illiterate and unemployable.