Parental Choice Is a Better Path to Student Proficiency

Today Education Week released its annual “Quality Counts” report. This is one of the main annual spending rankings used to justify more money for public education.

However, spending proponents never seem to tell us just how much more we’ll need to spend for students to be proficient in the basics.

Of course it costs money to educate students, but even a cursory glance at where the money goes raises serious doubts about how academic achievement is prioritized.

As of the 2011-12 school year, the latest data year available, total per-pupil spending averaged just over $12,000 nationwide. Only slightly more than half of that amount, $6,500 or 54 percent, went toward instruction, which includes teacher salaries and benefits, supplies such as textbooks, and purchased instructional services—including services from private schools.

If these “instructional” expenditures were primarily used to pay great educators, then they should be making six-figure salaries based on an average class size of 16 students ($6,500 * 16 students = $104,000), or at least a whole lot more than the average base salary of $53,000. Meanwhile, much of the remaining $5,500 per pupil is spent on administration, which is a significant expense given that the national median annual wage for K-12 education administrators now approaches $92,000.

Thus, it’s worth keeping in mind that about half of everything we spend on public education isn’t really funding what most of us would consider “education” after all.

But as a thought exercise, let’s all push the “I believe” button and pull out our imaginary checkbooks because if we could spend our way to 100 percent student proficiency, here’s a rough estimate of how much it will cost us under the current public school system.

Using combined fourth and eighth grade math and reading proficiency percentages from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, and per-pupil instructional spending figures from 2011-12, nationwide each proficiency percentage point costs an average of $132 for a student who is not low-income, and $329 for a student who is low-income (whose family income would quality him or her for the federal National School Lunch program).

As of 2011, 49 percent of non low-income students and just 20 percent of low-income students nationwide were proficient on NAEP. It would cost an additional $6,750 per pupil to reach 100 percent proficiency for non low-income students.  It would cost nearly four times as much per pupil for 100 percent of low-income students to reach proficiency, $26,400.

This means the national average per-pupil expenditure would jump to nearly $19,000 for non low-income students and more than $38,000 for low-income students. It would be cheaper to send school children to college.

Parental choice in education is a better way to help all students succeed without breaking the bank. The average funding for the 50 parental choice scholarship and education savings account (ESA) programs operating in nearly 30 states is $5,700—which likely overstates the actual funding because many parental choice programs include children with disabilities who have more expensive educational needs than general education students.

Nearly two decades of scientific research shows that disadvantaged students who use scholarships to attend the schools of their parents’ choice have higher academic achievement, as well as higher high school graduation, college attendance, and college completion rates.

Research also shows that public schools improve their performance in response to competition from private schools for students, so public school students benefit as well.

In fact, no scientific study to date has ever found that parental choice programs harm students.

When it comes to education, money certainly does matter. But how we spend it and who’s in charge of education funding matters far more. Instead of ranking states by how much they spend, we should be recognizing—and emulating—states that empower parents over their children’s education funding.

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For the authoritative examination of the history and impact of the U.S. Department of Education and the need for innovative reforms based on educational choice and opportunity, see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children, by Vicki E. Alger.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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