Wouldn’t it be nice to have a lot of money? So much money that you could do everything you want to do without worrying about the cost. Of course it would, and it would also be nice to have a unicorn; but we live in the real world, with resource constraints. For most of us, that means making decisions about what works best and putting our money into those things, rather than wasting our money on things that do not work. The one thing we know from the field of education is that what we are currently doing has not been working and we cannot afford to continue down the same path. Rather than throw good money after bad, we need to rethink how we operate public education in Missouri.
By many measures of academic achievement, Missouri ranks near the middle of the pack when compared to other states. On the best state-to-state comparison, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Missouri fourth graders ranked 28th in math and 32nd in reading in 2011. Missouri’s eighth-grade students ranked 33rd and 25th in math and reading, respectively. At the high school level, the state’s average ACT score has remained unchanged at 21.6 for the past eight years.
We are stuck in the middle with no signs of becoming “un-stuck.” Using data from NAEP and several international comparison tests, notable education scholars Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann analyzed national and state level trends in achievement. They found United States performance to be middling in comparison to other countries. From 1995 to 2009, 24 countries had educational gains larger than the United States and 24 had smaller gains. In their analysis, Missouri once again appears average when compared to other states, ranking 27th in the annual rate of growth in math, reading, and science achievement. Missouri does not seem to be improving rapidly in comparison to other states or other countries.
The answer to our apparent inertia is not simply more money. Many rigorous studies have shown, including the one cited above, that increased funding simply does not buy higher achievement. From 1992 to 2008, real per-pupil spending on K-12 education increased by nearly 40 percent. Last year, Missouri spent approximately $9,600 per student. For a class of 25 students, that equals $240,000. And that figure is just for current operating expenditures, which typically does not cover the cost of buildings and classrooms. For the 2013 fiscal year, spending on elementary and secondary education will consume more than 36 percent of the state’s general revenue operating budget.
Freedom, not money, is the answer to Missouri’s education problems. Our education system is rife with burdensome regulations and limitations that inhibit teachers and school leaders from addressing the most pressing needs at their schools. At the same time, most families lack the ability to express any meaningful choice in where their child goes to school. We need to allow school officials to innovate and we need to empower families to choose.
The state cannot afford to continue the path we are on, but we can certainly afford to dole out more freedom. Arizona lawmakers have discovered a way to promote freedom while saving money, with the use of education savings accounts. Families who wish to homeschool or place their child in a private school can now receive a portion of the funds that would have been spent on their child. They can use these funds for approved education purposes, including textbooks, tutoring, and even tuition. Because students only receive a portion of the funds, the state saves money and families have more options. In my book, that is a win-win.
James V. Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.
The one thing we know from the field of education is that what we are currently doing has not been working and we cannot afford to continue down the same path.