Proponents of public schools argue that private school vouchers rob government schools of needed resources, with which (and then some) they would indeed do a better job teaching, especially underprivileged students. I beg to differ. Government-run education does not lack resources, nor is it overrun with incompetent or apathetic teachers. The problem is that government-run schools lack the information and the incentives needed to get learning right.
Consider the changes in our lives over the past 50 years or even just the past decade. We have seen incredible transformations and innovations that have made our lives better, safer, easier and richer. Why haven’t we seen similar incredible transformations and innovations in our K-12 schools? Governments own and run most of our schools and therefore do not operate in competitive environments similar to those that brought us, among many other things, vast improvements in technology and telecommunications, higher quality foods at lower prices, bigger and cheaper HDTVs, and ever-cheaper means of transportation.
We run our schools much like the socialist-run factories of the last century: a top-down command and control system with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Teachers are constrained to teaching a single curriculum designed by people who have likely never set foot into their schools and to every student as if each had the exact same ability and desires. They then administer standardized tests to these same students to determine the effectiveness of the teacher, who had little to no input into what their students were taught. Is it a wonder that 50 percent of teachers quit by their fifth year? Without autonomy and a sense of purpose, it’s a pretty unfulfilling job.
Voucher opponents argue that private schools are not accountable to government bureaucrats. Great! That’s exactly the model from which we should be running.
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A truly competitive system encourages schools to innovate as they compete for tuition dollars. Entrepreneurs then have the incentive to continuously discover new ways of targeting diverse talents and meeting the disparate and ever-changing needs of each individual. There is greater incentive to bring about a more creative environment that encourages imagination, problem solving and creative thinking. Otherwise, they go out of business.
Government-run schools are funded regardless of the job they do.
There is therefore little incentive to do more than funnel all children through the same black box in a lackluster passive environment that is mono-focused on literacy and instilling rote memorization skills rather than on effective learning. The interests of school board members, school administrators, university researchers and their schools of education and special-interests allied with all three are served at the expense of students. Consequently, many parents are desperately seeking alternatives that suit the needs of their child.
In a study conducted three years ago, I found that real per-pupil expenditures in North Carolina more than doubled between 1980 and 2010. What have we to show for it? To where did this money go? Student outcomes remained nearly flat, and the money went primarily to fund more administrators and their compensation, as well as support staff such as education consultants.
Need further proof? Study after study in peer-reviewed academic journals and government agencies such as the CDC repeatedly show that a later start time for middle and high school students – 8:30 or later – not only increases student learning outcomes but also improves students’ health, and they are involved in fewer traffic accidents. Something as simple as changing the start time of middle and high schools would better serve the interests of students, yet only three states have instituted later start times for their middle and high schools. Whose interests are being served?
The education of our children is far too important to leave to a failed 20th century ideology that serves primarily the interests of those with decision-making authority and their bureaucratic allies. What our children need to prosper in a vibrant future that will demand of them more creative thinking and problem-solving skills is a system where entrepreneurial educators compete to serve the interests of students, not just the interests of those who oversee the system.
Mark Steckbeck of Holly Springs is an assistant professor of economics at Campbell University. He doesn’t speak for Campbell.