Spending Less for Better Education

The GOP's victories on November 2 have once again raised the call for smaller government, and given soaring budgets and lack of improvement, reducing K-12 education spending is one obvious target. This will not be easy, but there is a sensible strategy.

Begin by recognizing that abolishing any specific program, even clear-cut ineffective boondoggles, is doomed to fail. All have constituencies -- education school professors, benefiting parents, program employees, foundation experts, bureaucratic administrators, plus erstwhile pro-education members of Congress who can readily mobilize to defeat axe-wielders. Scanning the budget line by line to cut waste is a cost-saving dead end. GOP skinflints will be overwhelmed and labeled mean-spirited enemies of "helping the children."

Successful cost-cutting requires satisfying three conditions. First, reductions must improve education, not just make mediocrity less expensive. Second, measures must defeat interests who sustain an expensive, personally lucrative status quo. Finally, cutbacks must create powerful counter-constituencies to resist the inevitable rear-guard action from teachers' unions and all profiting from government's largess.    

The aim should be to reduce demand for conventional K-12 schooling: lower enrollments bring lower expenses, so cut enrollments. In practice, this requires ending the largely failed efforts to keep kids in school who are dying to leave. Here's how: award every currently enrolled student past the age of sixteen a lifetime GI Bill-like, no-expiration-date voucher cashable at any government-approved vocational school, internship, or union or business apprenticeship (and simultaneously remove all financial incentives for schools to prevent dropouts).

A "Get Out of Jail Free" card for millions, but we'll call it "Lifetime Learning." The exact amount is negotiable, but to prevent cries of cheapness, $10,000, yearly adjusted for inflation, would suffice, since this is about what the average U.S. schools spend per pupil.  

This voucher would undoubtedly heighten an already large exodus from schools, but it is unambiguously pro-education! It acknowledges that learning occurs over a lifetime while conceding the uselessness of keeping a restless, bored sixteen-year-old cooped up in school. The pattern is a familiar one whereby an immature teenager drifts aimlessly and gets into trouble, then grows up and "gets religion," and then seeks -- but cannot always find -- a better job. Now, however, thanks to the Lifetime Learning voucher plus a little maturity, he or she is finally motivated and in a position to acquire market-relevant skills. This was the secret of the GI bill -- college for those hungry to learn with minimal bureaucratic overhead. 

American schools would dramatically improve almost overnight and without any multi-billion-dollar Washington panaceas or massive bureaucratic directives. With few exceptions, refugees would be the most rambunctious, those  who impede the learning of classmates. Many violent, low-performing "bad" schools would suddenly turn "good" almost by magic, and diligent students could now learn unimpeded. In addition, while there now would be fewer staff, those who remain would relish the improvement, and without all the miscreants, the teaching profession would attract better recruits. And by ending make-the-numbers pressures to bestow diplomas at all costs, this exodus would restore the value of the high school diploma, a substantial economic benefit for those who stay the course. A more effective, quicker, less expensive way to improve schools academically is hard to imagine.

The cash savings would be immense. If the Lifetime Learning voucher were equal to a single year of school expenditures, and if those who took it departed at the end of their sophomore year, the instant overall education budget savings would be huge. This savings would be especially large in school districts showering immense resources on kids struggling with basics, e.g., Washington, D.C. Relieved of uplifting the troublesome bottom, schools could cut back educationally unproductive school security, the armies of counselors ministering to disruptive students, paperwork to ensure racial fairness in school discipline, and countless resource-draining social welfare-type programs. Administrators would also no longer be pressured to fudge the numbers regarding "progress" for those disinclined to learn.

The voucher resembles a debit card and thus would be cheap to put into practice. Money for education would be finally almost entirely money for education.

But more important than saving a dime, allowing education consumers to shop the marketplace with their "own" money would undoubtedly promote enhanced learning and help the overall economy. So, for example, rather than sleep through English 3, our older, now more motivated student will seek out more attractive and income-producing learning opportunities. After all, he or she now has painfully experienced low-skill, dead-end jobs. Moreover, since for-profit schools must compete for customers, they have powerful incentives to reduce the non-educational administrative bloat paralyzing today's public education. Again: education means motivated students learning something useful.

Enrollees would also benefit from flexible hours of instruction and a curriculum that keeps pace with shifting job requirements. Voucher recipients also have inducements to place graduates in jobs. After all, not even a dim student would use his or her personal voucher if there is no payoff. This is totally unlike public schools, where the financial incentive is to entice the student just to show up so as to collect attendance money.          

Now for the political part. Lyndon Johnson accurately said an enduring program requires a constituency to push and defend it. So what can counter the teachers' unions and all the rest of the soon-to-be-unemployed? First are the fans of reduced taxes, notably the Tea Partiers and other proponents of smaller, simpler government -- a formidable force, as the 2010 election demonstrated. Further add those currently working for educational choice, since the Lifetime Learning voucher extends the choice principle beyond high school. Between 2002 and 2005, for example, there were some 1,200 organizations advocating school choice, and the record is one of great success. Now include the for-profit school industry, such as privately run "career" colleges that in 2010 numbered some 3,000 and are rapidly expanding (see here). Add the numerous technical schools offering more humdrum instruction (for example, see here). Significantly, large firms have entered this for-profit education industry and will be happy to defend Lifetime Learning. Businesses will also be enthusiastic supporters given lower training costs, while unions will gain from government-funded apprenticeship programs. This is hardly a powerless coalition against today's education establishment.   

Going one step further, black and Hispanic advocacy groups will (or should) see the work/apprenticeship voucher as a straightforward solution to high levels of chronic teenage unemployment. For these youngsters, many of whom leave school empty-handed anyhow, subsidized internships and apprenticeships overcome the minimum wage barrier and thus provide that vital first step on the job ladder. The availability of no-cost, hands-on, flexible instruction may also be attractive to single mothers (many of whom never completed high school) and thus ultimately reduce welfare costs. The "stay in school for a degree" message offered by minority advocacy groups has gone nowhere for these teenagers; better to replace it with "leave school now, and when you see the folly of being unskilled, get some practical education of your own choosing."

Support may also come from foes of unrestricted immigration, especially the influx of those with low skills. It is well-known that many jobs in construction, food service, transportation, landscaping, and the like depend on imported labor, so if Americans acquired these skills, albeit at say age 25, the demand for non-U.S. workers would shrink. That is, a sixteen-year-old American high school student may have scant interest in learning to install drywall, so the job goes to a more highly motivated worker from Mexico or El Salvador. But what if our dropout ten years hence could enroll in a trade school or a union training program at no cost and learn that skill? Substituting Americans for imported workers would lower unemployment and reduce the pathologies associated with both unskilled domestic workers and those from abroad competing for these jobs.     

Educational reforms are notable for undelivered promises, so there can be no guarantees. For-profit education is hardly a risk-free panacea (see here), nor do young adults always respond sensibly to opportunities. Nevertheless, the Lifetime Learning proposal is simple, relatively inexpensive, reflects hard-nosed human nature, and is politically feasible. By reducing demand and not directly killing off well-protected non-education waste, it will reduce bloat and bring better education for less -- a lot less money.               

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schoolsbadstudentsnotbadschools.com
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