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Improve Education by Expanding Options

For generations, Americans have correctly understood that a good education is key to pursuing the American Dream.

Look no further than the unemployment rates. In November 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma was 12.2 percent. For high school graduates, the rate dropped to 8.1 percent, and those who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher have just a 3.8 percent unemployment rate. Moreover, Americans with a bachelor’s degree earn on average 70 percent more each year than those with just a high school diploma. But despite the central importance of education, our schools, colleges, and universities are underperforming and failing thousands of students across the country every year.

Consider the underwhelming performance of our K–12 system. The average SAT reading (verbal) score is down 34 points since 1972. Graduation rates have been stagnant since the 1970s: One in four students do not graduate from high school. In addition, reading and math achievement has been virtually flat over the same time period, and American students still rank in the middle of the pack compared to their international peers. Even more alarming are the disparities between rich and poor and whites and Asians compared to other minorities. Clearly, our public schools, particularly those with a higher proportion that are poor and minority, are not doing a good job.

For years, political leaders from both parties have offered the same solution: Spend more on education and increase the number of federal programs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average annual per-pupil expenditure in public schools is more than $11,000—double the amount it was in 1970 (in constant dollars). Some of the highest-spending school districts also have the worst-performing students. Take Detroit ($15,000 per pupil) or Chicago ($13,000 per pupil) for example: Only 6 percent of Detroit 4th graders and 15 percent of Chicago children are functionally literate. Governments in the United States spend more than half a trillion dollars a year on public elementary and secondary education, or about 4 percent of GDP. Federal per-pupil expenditures have nearly tripled since the 1960s, and taxpayers have spent more than $2 trillion on federal K–12 education programs alone.

If spending was the solution, the problems plaguing our education system would have been solved long ago. So what does work?

First, policymakers should limit federal intervention in education. A better path forward includes allowing states to consolidate funding from the programs under No Child Left Behind, opt out of the many federal requirements associated with those programs, and use those funds in ways that best meet the needs of local students.

Second, state and local leaders should empower parents with control over their share of education funding by allowing them to select the right school for their children. In too many districts, children are assigned to their local public school based on their parents’ zip code. Lack of competition means that public schools have little incentive to improve, which contributes to lackluster academic performance across the country.

Third, innovative leaders in higher education have been developing new business models and incorporating new technology that is bringing down the potential cost sharply while tailoring courses to student learning styles and economic needs. But obstacles like accreditation and federal rules governing loans are slowing the spread of new ideas. State and federal leaders need to remove these obstacles and give a green light to innovation in school and college education.

School choice, by contrast, allows parents to spend their education dollars on options that best fit the needs of their child. School choice operates under the concept that education dollars should not fund institutions, but should fund the child instead, following a child to any school of choice: public, charter, private, virtual, homeschooling, or a combination of educational options. Although these options are proliferating, millions of children across the country are still trapped in government schools that fail to meet their needs, fail to provide them with a quality education, and in some cases even fail to provide for their safety.

For children who do graduate from high school, college is an expensive proposition of increasingly questionable value. Tuition has been increasing at more than four times the rate of inflation; the average college student leaves school with more than $25,000 in debt; only a third or so of incoming freshmen graduate with four years (after six years, less than 60 percent have earned a diploma); and employers complain that graduates lack the skills they are looking for.

Change is coming, though, at all levels of education. For instance, customization and online learning is changing the relationship between student and teacher, rapidly in higher education but steadily at K–12; it enables information to be transferred and student performance to be monitored at a fraction of conventional costs. It also allows students to learn when and where they choose, so they can remain employed while taking classes in their spare time, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will complete their diplomas. And it democratizes access to some of the world’s best professors and highest-quality content. This offers the prospect of a fundamental restructuring of higher education with a sharp reduction in costs—a revolution that would be a boon to students seeking to acquire the skills they need in today’s economy. The issue is whether resistance from teacher unions and college faculty, helped by accreditation rules designed for another era, will hurt young Americans by slowing needed change.

Simply put, choice, innovation, and competition will improve education and lower costs for all students, bringing more and better opportunity—if they are allowed to do so.

Guiding Principles

  • One size does not fit all when it comes to K–12 education policy. Nationalizing the content taught in America’s schools by imposing national standards and tests on classrooms across the country is not the way to improve education for America’s students. Real reform will empower parents and recognize that there are many ways to teach and many ways to learn. Local control allows schools to tailor their programs to their students and ensures that parents are at the table for important discussions about what is taught in the classroom.
  • K–12 education reform should put parents and schools in charge. Decision-making authority should be restored to those who know each child’s name and educational needs—principals, teachers, and especially parents—not left in the hands of Washington bureaucrats.
  • More choice, not more funding, is crucial. For years, federal spending on K–12 education has skyrocketed as graduation rates and test scores have barely budged. By contrast, school choice boosts parental satisfaction, improves students’ academic achievement, and improves the efficiency and performance of the traditional public school system by promoting healthy competition. While more than a dozen states now offer private school choice options, millions of American children are still assigned to their nearest public school, regardless of whether it meets their learning needs.
  • Higher education reform should focus on unleashing innovation to reduce costs while improving quality, accessibility, and graduation rates. Too many college students are not getting what they are paying so much for or not getting access to less expensive and customized education. The national six-year graduate rate is less than 60 percent, and those who do obtain a diploma often lack the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. True reform must focus on bringing down costs, boosting graduation rates, and strengthening curricula.

The Way Forward

  • Empower parents by expanding school choice and limiting federal intervention in education.School choice significantly increases the likelihood that a child will graduate from high school. Federal policymakers should advance parental choice in education by expanding the successful pilot D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to include more students in the nation's capital. Other federal education programs should empower parents by allowing states to let federal funding follow a student to a school of the family's choice. Congress should reverse the federal encroachment represented in No Child Left Behind and the Common Core national standards initiative, which cede parents' and other citizens' authority over local school and curriculum decisions to a distant bureaucracy.
  • Avoid standardization. Bureaucrats in Washington are eager to impose their view across the entire country. They have used the "Race to the Top" competitive grant program, for example, to entice states to adopt the K–12 standards developed by a joint project of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Under a program known as "Common Core," all will be required to teach to a national set of standards and a corresponding national test.Common Core national standards are costly in terms of dollars for states but costlier still in terms of liberty lost. And the standards' requirement that 50 percent of English materials be derived from informational texts like "Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management," which is recommended reading on the national standards list, places fiction and classic literature in jeopardy. State policymakers should reject one-size-fits-all national standards and tests and work instead to strengthen existing state standards and tests.
  • Encourage competition and innovation throughout education. Innovators are designing exciting new ways to deliver education less expensively and more effectively, from "blended" learning in the classroom to new forms of college with sharply lower costs. Research shows that school choice options are a powerful way to foster innovation by sparking healthy competitive pressure on surrounding public schools, creating an education tide that lifts all boats. In a Florida study, for example, as more and more private schools began participating in the voucher program that was designed for disabled students, students with disabilities in surrounding public schools made statistically significant improvements in reading and math: Not only did the children receiving a voucher make academic gains, but their peers who remained in the public system did as well. State and local policymakers should work to enact or expand school choice options, including but not limited to vouchers, tax credits and deductions, education savings accounts, online learning, and charter schools.
  • Overhaul accreditation. Accreditation is said to be a "seal of approval" granted to institutions of higher education and is intended to assure students that colleges and universities meet certain standards of quality, but it is fast becoming a barrier to change rather than a system of quality measurement. For example, it favors existing expensive business models for higher education, thereby making it difficult for new models to emerge. And it rates entire institutions—rather than specific courses—and, as a result, is a poor indicator of the skills acquired by students or the quality of specific courses.Voluntary accreditation by private entities, especially in conjunction with employers, could carry with it weight and value that is absent from the current, mandatory, federally sanctioned accreditation process. It would also make it more likely that future students will be equipped with the right skills for employment. Moreover, decoupling federal financing (student loans) from accreditation would give students more power to use college loans and grants at innovative online providers, enabling them to customize their higher education experience.