Marcus A. Winters challenges the concept that in order to improve American schools, we need to increase the amount of money we spend on them. This truism is often cited to explain why the education system in this country is falling further behind other First World nations. And American preoccupation with fiscal responsibility is often blamed for keeping the country from properly educating its children. “Not so fast,” writes Winters in his column for the City Journal. Before the government throws off its restraint and throws more money at the problem, first everyone needs to make sure that the schools are using the money they already have in most efficient way.
In reality, that task is far from impossible. The story of American education over the last three decades is one not of insufficient funds but of inefficient schools. Billions of new dollars have gone into the system, to little effect. Luckily, Americans are starting to recognize that we can improve schooling without paying an additional dime. In fact, by unleashing the power of educational choice, we might even save money while getting better results and helping the economy’s long-term prospects.
The U.S. stands to gain a lot if it can improve its education system by even one standard deviation, which would put it on the level with one of the best school systems in the world, in Finland. Such change would translate to an addition 1% GDP growth per year, according to some economic estimates. Since 1972, the amount of money spent on education in the United States has nearly doubled, and yet the results have not improved at even close to the same rate. As a matter of fact, there doesn’t seem to be much difference at all between academic outcomes in mid-70s and now. Student achievement has, for all intents and purposes, stagnated for nearly half-a-century. It’s hard to tell what public schools are doing with all this money, but it’s not entirely unfair to say that it’s not educating American kids.
Compare this to the academic outcomes of private school students. Although the government spends nearly as much on students in the urban areas such as Boston, New York and Washington D.C. as private schools charge in tuition, the results obtained by the private schools leave public school students completely in the dust. And it is not because private schools students’ more privileged home environment. This reasoning was put to bed, when researchers set out to compare how students who take advantage of voucher programs that allow them to attend private schools compare to their peers who do not.
The nearly uniform finding from this research is that students benefit academically when they attend private school, rather than the public school that they would otherwise have attended. Some disagreement persists about how large the private schools’ impact is and about whether it affects all students or only those from particular backgrounds—but not even the harshest critics claim that attending a private school harms students.
What is especially worthy of note is the fact that, on the whole, private schools are able to get these results for less money than public schools typically spend per-student.
As more students use public dollars to attend schools outside the traditional public school sector, student achievement will probably improve, and expenditures will certainly decline. That’s an outcome that should interest lawmakers in these fiscally troubled times.