Let's face it - public schools are failing. SAT scores have steadily declined since 1960. Results from other tests of public high school seniors conducted by independent research groups show a serious decline in the quality of public education over the last several decades.
Accompanying the steady decline in the quality of education has been a significant increase in the cost of public schools. Spending per student in public schools has increased over 400% in real terms since WWII.
Much of the spending increase has gone to finance a bloated, costly administrative bureaucracy, not for putting more teachers in the classroom. The number of administrative employees of the public school system is now almost equal to the number of teachers. Declining academic quality in our public schools at increasingly higher costs indicates that something is fundamentally wrong the current system.
Public education is suffering from the problems of inefficiency, declining quality and rising costs that result when an organization is protected from competition. Insulated from competition, public schools do not face any pressure to operate efficiently or deliver a high quality educational product. In fact, operating efficiently undermines the agenda of the public education bureaucracy, because efficiency would lead to a reduction in funding.
Perverse incentives are in place to guarantee the failure of public schools - the worse public education is, the more money and resources will be budgeted to try to solve the education "problem." Delivering an inferior product will result in increasingly larger budgets for education, which is exactly what we have seen happen in the last 30 years.
And despite increasing public pressure for some type of educational reform to restore competition, public school educators have almost unanimously opposed school choice and vouchers. Because they currently enjoy a protected position by being insulated from competition in education, teachers also have an incentive NOT to teach students to think clearly about educational choice. Teaching students to appreciate and understand the role of competitive, market forces would undermine an agenda of increased funding of public education. If students and parents were taught to appreciate the principles free markets and competition, they would become increasingly intolerant of inefficient, statist bureaucracies and would demand competition and choice in education.
The voucher program proposed by Kids First! Yes! for Michigan would reintroduce the competitive market forces that have been missing in education for so many generations. Vouchers could dramatically improve the quality of education in Michigan in many ways. Parents would be given more choices on where to send their children to school. Public schools would be forced to compete for students with private schools, which would make public schools more responsive to their customers. We could expect more innovation in the types and number of different educational programs offered.
Vouchers would also take power away from the educators and put it back in the hands of the people to whom it belongs - parents and students. Schools would now be forced to serve parents and students or would go out of business. Successful schools would attract more students which would give them the resources to expand. Schools that failed to meet the need of parents and students would be forced to change or go out of business. Resources would be redirected away from inefficient failing schools to the more efficient, successful schools. In other words, the competitive forces unleashed by a voucher program would give us better schools in Michigan at a lower price.
Nothing is more important than the education of our children. There is no surer way to guarantee that our children continue to receive an increasingly inferior education than by continuing to insulate public schools from the very market forces that would promote higher quality education at lower prices.
Our country has achieved the highest standard living in the history of the world by encouraging and fostering competition and choice in the marketplace, not by restricting the choices available to consumers. A voucher system in Michigan would be a good start at restoring competition and parental choice in education.
(Mark J. Perry is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan-Flint. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com)