HomeSchool Reform NewsA Simple Plan for Dramatic School Reform (Commentary)

A Simple Plan for Dramatic School Reform (Commentary)

Taxpayer money should be used to invest in every child’s future, not prop up a failing system. That’s a simple plan that would create dramatic school reform.

As education analysts and reformers have known for decades and parents have found out since their children ended up studying online at home during Covid-19 lockdowns, those who teach in and administer government-controlled schools in the United States have proven that they simply cannot be trusted with the taxpayers’ money.

Writing at The Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yass, managing director and cofounder of Susquehanna International Group, notes the return on investment in the government-run education establishment has been abysmal: “inflation-adjusted [annual] spending in K-12 education has tripled since 1970 to a record $751.7 billion,” Yass writes. “Yet barely a third of all fourth-graders across U.S. urban communities can read or do math at grade level.”

Especially in big cities, government-run schools are catastrophically bad, Yass observes:

Boston and New York City each spend well over $25,000 a pupil annually for education, yet families get dismal results. Philadelphia spends $24,000, but only 17% of eighth-graders are proficient in reading. Nationwide, black mothers can expect their children to learn 30% of what they are supposed to learn to be successful in life, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress, testing core subjects in fourth, eighth and 12th grade. Even if those black children go to college and earn a Bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce they will earn 23% less than whites.

Contrary to public school advocates’ continual bleating and poor-mouthing, the problem with America’s schools is not a lack of money but a gross, systemic failure to perform the tasks they are being paid for: to teach children what they need to know and be able to do in order to become as successful as each one can.

Parents certainly could not do worse than this mass education complex that seems increasingly to be run for the benefit of teachers unions and not the children. Yass proposes to foster reform by putting parents in charge by simply assigning that money to children instead of to schools:

Consider a single mother of two. From kindergarten to high school graduation, the government will spend nearly $250,000 on each of her children. Yet she won’t have much of a say in how the dollars are spent. Without her consent, the bureaucrats who run the public schools will build facilities, hire teachers and plan curriculum that may leave her children far behind their peers, all at exorbitant prices. …

Now imagine if that same mother could choose how the $500,000 was spent. She could use up to two-thirds of her education money to advance her children’s education, with the remaining third set aside for the children’s use after high school. She could make sure her children received a good education that fit her values and their learning needs. She could use the money at a charter school or even to pay for tuition at a private school, religious or otherwise. She could deploy these funds to set up a microschool with professional teachers, the sort of multifamily home schooling that proliferated during the pandemic.

This would not be “taking money away from public schools”—which is an odd complaint to hear from many of the very people who were heard screaming “defund the police” for the past two years—because the parents would be perfectly free to send their children to government-run schools:

She and other parents could also pick old-fashioned public schools, which would finally have to earn support by treating parents with respect. I suspect Philadelphia’s parents will think twice before shelling out $24,000 a year for a system that has been adding administrators at a rate of seven times the increase in students while tuition at the average Philadelphia Catholic high school is roughly $8,000, and private-school tuition averages just under $12,000.

Those in charge of the government-run schools would have it entirely in their power to retain every single child that now attends. All they would have to do is outperform the alternatives. If they are unable to do that, they do not deserve this money which, after all, is taken from the public by government force. They should have to put up or shut up, just as the people who pay their salaries are required to do.

As noted above, the government-run schools can cost two to three times as much as private or parochial ones. Yass proposes to pass any savings directly on to the children as an investment in each kid’s future:

Leftover funds would go into a family account and draw interest over time. Saving $8,000 a year with a 4% yield would total nearly $135,000 over 13 years. Students who finish high school would unlock that money for higher education, job training or other purposes.

Purportedly, the purpose of government education is to benefit children, not just to pay for enormous buildings and ever-increasing hordes of education bureaucrats. Allowing children to benefit from prudence in their education expenditures would help them get a better start in adulthood and would help keep costs down by making schools compete for dollars that parents are under no obligation to give them.

Would some parents be too parsimonious in choosing education options for their children? Possibly. However, the parents would not get the money that they saved; the children would, and only after graduation. In any case, the parents of the most vulnerable children would find it hard to find worse options than what the local government-run system currently provides.

This system of education choice would be a truly powerful poverty-fighting measure in addition to allocating education money to more effective options, Yass writes:

For the mission of making their lives better, we need to give parents the funds the system currently misspends. If, after graduation, the students want to use it to buy a business or a house or car, it’s theirs to decide. The effect would be to relieve poverty in general. The money parents save could make the lives of their children better rather than being squandered in an education system with poor outcomes.

Yass is right. The current system of education funding does an exceedingly poor job of ensuring quality and efficiency. That is no way to treat our children. They deserve better, and having our education money follow the children is the solution. Education money should be spent on children’s education, not propping up a failing system.

Read the full article (behind paywall).

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For more from The Heartland Institute.

S. T. Karnick
S. T. Karnick
S. T. Karnick is a senior fellow and director of publications for The Heartland Institute, where he edits Heartland Daily News.


  1. Although none of the proposed reforms are earth-shatteringly new this does not mean they are without merit. However, one large, not mentioned stumbling block remains. Public education must accept all comers. This is a burden not equally shared by charter, private or religiously affiliated schools. We have two retired and one working public school educator in our extended family. While they may not disagree with recommendations in this essay on principle, their objection always is they will not get on board with the outlined proposals until non-public schools share equally in the education of students with autism and more general learning disabilities. Picking and choosing students that are the easiest to educate avoids the heavy lifting of primary education.


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