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We would be vastly better off we limited the government’s role in schooling by making it merely a conduit of funds directly to parents.
For more than a century, the K-12 education system in the United States has been monopolized by poor-performing government-run public schools that have little to no competition because the education funding method is fatally flawed. Fortunately, one of the few silver linings that has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic has been a surge in support for school choice and the enactment of a more market-driven approach to education funding: universal school choice via vouchers, commonly called education savings accounts.
Universal school choice is a long-overdue reform that has gained momentum in recent years. Unlike the antiquated system in which state and local governments collect taxes for education and then distribute those funds directly to public schools, universal school choice distributes education tax dollars directly to parents so that they can choose the school that best fits the unique learning needs and circumstances for their child.
This is a superior education funding process compared to the status quo because it introduces market forces, principally through competition in the education marketplace, which has been sorely lacking for far too long. It also leads to much-needed innovation in the increasingly stale, one-size-fits-all government-run education sector.
As of 2023, approximately 90% of K-12 students in the United States attended a public school. This is not by choice. In fact, most parents would prefer their child to attend a different school rather than the one and only public option arbitrarily assigned to them based on their zip code.
This is especially true for parents with children stuck in poor-performing and unsafe public schools located in inner cities. In recent years, as standardized test scores show, these public schools have done a miserable job of properly educating their students for a successful future.
Two of the most appealing aspects of the school choice revolution under way across the nation are that it leads to less education spending and better academic outcomes.
One way or another, the government (whether at the local, state, or federal level) is going to play a large role in the education funding system.
On average, K-12 public schools spent $14,347 per pupil in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, several states, including New York, Vermont, Connecticut, and New Jersey, spent in excess of $20,000 per student. The average annual tuition rate for the nation’s 22,440 private K-12 schools is much lower, at $12,350 per student.
In general, private schools are more affordable than public schools because they lack the enormous bureaucracies that have become commonplace in bloated public school districts. Private schools are more streamlined and devote more of their resources directly to classrooms, while public schools and their overweening district offices divert limited resources to countless programs that have little to do with boosting educational outcomes but lots to do with perpetuating bureaucracy.
What’s more, students attending private schools consistently outperform their public school peers on nationwide standardized tests including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”
Of course, universal school choice has no shortage of critics. But most of these opponents have an agenda, and most work within the existing public school monopoly.
Take teachers' unions, for example, which have battled school choice for decades. Unions argue that school choice programs take education dollars away from public schools, harm low-income families, and widen achievement gaps. These arguments are weak, at best, considering that public school funding has increased substantially in recent years while academic outcomes have remained stagnant and achievement gaps either have remained the same or gotten worse.
Others deride universal school choice and voucher programs as the antithesis of a free market, arguing that state and local governments should not provide large sums of money to parents for educational purposes because it is inflationary and akin to a subsidy. This is misguided.
We live in a society in which we agree that some degree of compulsory education is necessary for the preservation of our freedoms, values, and way of life. One way or another, the government (whether at the local, state, or federal level) is going to play a large role in the education funding system. But it is much more in line with free-market principles for the government to offer education dollars directly to the consumer (parents) versus the other way around, where government showers money on the provider (in this case, the public schools).
Think of it this way: The government gives out subsidies in the form of food stamps, but it does not require that those funds be spent in a government-run grocery store. If that were the case, could you imagine how lousy the government-run grocery stores would be? The government-run grocery stores would surely know that they are the only option, which would deter improvements and innovations.
The same logic should apply to government funding for education. Under the present circumstances, government plays an outsized role in education funding. We would be vastly better off we limited the government’s role by making it merely a conduit of funds directly to parents, who would use the money to ensure their children receive the best education possible — whether that’s at a public school, private school, parochial school, charter school, or even homeschooling.
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Chris Talgo is a former public high school teacher and the editorial director at the Heartland Institute.