Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush are whetting their stances on what is quickly becoming a central issue in the upcoming presidential election – education reform. Both perceive the issue as an opportunity to draw votes from the other party’s followers, especially Bush, who stands to gain ground on minority groups, a segment of the population he is particularly weak with. (Business Week; April 10, 2000) The heat of the debate will center on school financing, who gets what, and how much.
Bush, an advocate of school “choice,” will argue the failings of a money-flooded system riddled with mediocre standards. The Texas governor’s policies rest well footed on past accomplishments at home, where he had a significant impact during his term. Public schools in Texas improved dramatically over Bush’s watch. “Black and Latino children have made galloping gains in math and reading scores . . . narrowing the achievement gap that bedevils systems around the country,” cites The New York Times. (New York Times; Mar 27, 2000) Al Gore is no weakling on the issue of education, however.
He plans to spend an unprecedented $115 billion over the next ten years to bring national schooling up to par with other industrialized nations. He is calling for larger teacher salaries, programs to aid underprivileged children, and preschooling for children over four. Like President Clinton, he strongly supports the National Education Association and funding to improve struggling schools with substandard resources and technology. (The Economist; April 1, 2000) Both presidential candidates have a tough road ahead of them, though.
America’s educational status among industrialized nations has slowly declined over the past thirty years, and now dangerously looms near the bottom. By twelfth grade ninety-five percent of American children score below the standards of twenty other rich nations, the greatest shortfalls existing among minority segments of the population where scholastic achievement has historically been quite low, especially in urban settings. According to The Economist, seventy-five percent of American ten-year-olds in the poorest public schools can’t yet read or write, and one in seven seventeen-year-olds are illiterate. The Economist; April 1, 2000)
Poor performance amongst inner city schools and minority populations is not new news, however, and states have been fighting back with experimental programs, more school funding, stronger teaching standards, and student standardized testing. But even with all the efforts made to improve current educational failings, states have only realized limited successes; the US still lags far behind other leading nations. (The Economist; April 1, 2000) The lack of real progress has roused the attention of parents, politicians, and economists, all hungry for answers.
In Florida, Illinois, Main, Vermont, and Ohio, experimental vouchers were enacted in an effort to liberate frustrated parents and politicians upset with local school conditions. The voucher system is still quite controversial, however, and has met strong opposition from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Court rulings in favor of the NEA and AFT have complicated voucher systems even further. In Florida, the state’s supreme court ruled vouchers “unconstitutional,” arguing that the state didn’t have the right to use public dollars to finance private schools practicing religion.
In Milwaukee, voucher regulations have zigzagged back and forth between courts and politicians since their implementation over six years ago. In every state now implementing school vouchers, Constitutional objections await court judgment. (Phi Delta Kappan; January 2000) So far, the United States Supreme Court has declined to address the issue, leaving state legislators and state courts suspended in battle. With Al Gore adamantly backing the NEA and AFT, and George Bush diametrically opposed advocating “choice,” the battle between the two promises to be fierce.
Although it is too early to tell whose view is truly favored, Bush’s campaign currently leads at the polls on education, especially among minorities. Choice schemes are particularly favored among Latinos and black Americans, who, according to Business Week, “see their public schools as unsafe and of poor quality. ” But Gore’s educational agenda is also luring proponents. “He hopes to tap into suburban fears, that vouchers would drain scarce resources from [suburban] schools,” cites Business Week. (Business Week; April 10, 2000)
In the end it all comes down to taxation, though. How many dollars do Americans want to spend on national education, and how does it want to distribute them? Al Gore’s current agenda calls for increased spending, and quite a bit. But the fact of the matter is America already stands tough as big spender on education. According to The Economist, “America spends almost sixty percent of its national income on primary and secondary education, more than any OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] country except Denmark and Canada. ”
In an unsettling examination of government expenditures on national education, Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Rochester, illustrated that “there has been a dramatic rise in real expenditure per pupil over the entire twentieth century . . . after allowing for inflation, expenditures per pupil have increased almost 3. 5 percent per year. ” (Hanushek 1996) According to his research, the largest gains were made over the past few decades. Between 1970 and 1990, per pupil spending almost doubled in real dollars.
Hanushek attributes the fiscal growth to three primary factors: better pupil-to-teacher ratios, increases in real teacher salaries, and expenditures on non-instructional staff. According to Hanushek, expenditures focused on improving teacher quality and pupil-to-teacher ratios fueled noticeable changes in those areas. He points out that since 1960 pupil-to-teacher ratios have declined steadily. In 1965 the average number of students per teacher was 25. 6 where as by 1990 it was only 17. 3.
He also points out how teacher educational levels have improved over the past several decades. In 1965 only twenty-three percent of teachers had a master’s degree, however, by 1990 over fifty percent had a master’s degree. Finally, he shows how teacher-experience lengthened. In 1960 the median years of teacher experience was eleven where as by 1990 the median was fifteen. (Hanushek 1996) But with all the striking advances made in commonly advocated areas, Hanushek points out that students have made little scholastic improvement since 1970.
According to data put out by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), performance amongst seventeen-year-olds actually weakened in both math and science over the past thirty years, and reading levels remained constant or only improved slightly. Furthermore, performance amongst minorities and students of low socioeconomic backgrounds has stagnated since 1970. Hanushek explains: The problems of performance appear particularly acute when considering race or socioeconomic status . . . while the gap in science achievement of seventeen-year-olds has closed little and remained about one standard deviation, the 1. standard deviation gaps in mathematics and reading each closed by about 60 percent. The most recent data suggest that convergence may have ceased, with the NAEP reading scores, for example, showing significant widening. Hanushek’s research also highlights the growth in expenditures on non-instructional staff over the past forty years. He explains, “Expenditures outside those for instructional staff have increased even more rapidly than those for aggregate instructional staff salaries. For example, between 1960 and 1990, salary expenditures fell from sixty-one percent to forty-six percent of total expenditures. The stark growth of expenditures on non-instructional staff represents a suspicious trend in government spending. It could represent an increase in bureaucratic inefficiencies, though Hanushek concludes that current data can “neither confirm nor deny” such an interpretation. Hanushek concludes in his research that “spending and commonly used resources of schools are not good measures of quality. Moreover, simply adding more resources to schools as currently structured is unlikely to yield significant results. ” Hanushek’s controversial conclusion is not accepted by all, however. David Card and Alan B.
Krueger argue that there is evidence that school resources positively impact student achievement. Their study in 1996 focused on school resources over the past century in North and South Carolina. Because South Carolina during the earlier half of the century concentrated their school resources on white Americans by sacrificing the school resources of black Americans, school resources for white Americans in South Carolina were larger than school resources for white Americans in North Carolina. Consequently, school resources were also larger for black Americans in North Carolina and smaller for black Americans in South Carolina.
The differences in school resources, according to their study, resulted in better pupil-to-teacher ratios, which they believe positively affected the average educational level of male students. They assert, “trends in relative education between the two states roughly mirror the trends in relative school resources by race. ” They also point out that as the differences in school resources converged educational attainment and earnings among males converged as well. (Card and Krueger, 1996) Card and Krueger’s research offers hope and theoretically makes sense — school resources should affect student outcomes.
What it fails to identify, however, is whether increased school spending leads to an increase in school resources. While in North and South Carolina school spending seemed to lead to an increase in school resources, and, more importantly, an improvement in student outcomes, it does not explain why growing expenditures for the nation over all has not produced similar results, or why expenditures in non-instructional staff have been growing for the past thirty years, expenditures which could represent growing bureaucracy costs.
While Card and Kruger’s research does not explain why increased school spending affected student outcomes, it does show that at times increased spending can affect student outcomes. The important distinction is while capital can affect productivity, it may not always do so. Not all capital is equal. A farmer with a hammer in hand benefits from the utility of a tool; however, a farmer with a spade in hand benefits even more. Even if increased school spending results in greater school resources, it is unclear whether those resources are the ones needed to improve student outcomes.
Given the scope of education in this country and the vast diversity of an evolving capitalistic economy, it would seem almost impossible to apportion the appropriate resources in education efficiently through political processes alone. Market demand changes, technology changes, students change and, more importantly, vary considerably across the nation — how could any political system be expected to keep up and be all knowing all the time?
In an examination of school financing, Caroline Minter Hobby, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard University, explained how the supply of school resources in the U. S. affected consumers of education (1996). She illustrates how spending patterns on education through local taxation, especially property taxation, can effect the growth of school resources, the type of school resources, and the productivity of school resources. According to her study, “the strength of local, property tax-based school finance is its ability to achieve a high level of allocative efficiency. Hoxby explains that, “the inequality between the intrinsic value of a district’s schools and the per-household cost in property taxes induces movement between districts, until the households within each school district have the same demand for schooling and all households consume the amount of schooling they find optimal. ” (Hoxby, 1996) Movement between districts, however, may not be as efficient as Hoxby indicates. For households with limited resources, namely poorer consumers of education, movement between districts may be limited.
If Hoxby’s assumption that property taxes influence school resources, then poorer segments of the population may be unable to consume the amount of education they desire because of their location. Additionally, they may have less influence over school operations, since local taxes in urban schools play a smaller role in school financing. (Hoxby, 1996) While Bush’s claim that school “choice” will improve educational standards cannot be proved, at least it addresses America’s current dilemma with student achievement — larger school expenditures result in little or no improvement in student performance.
Though controversial evidence surrounds “choice” systems, their popularity is strong among minorities and low socioeconomic groups. Recent evidence also suggests that vouchers among these segments of the population are spurning positive changes. Harvard University’s Programme on Educational Policy in 1999 concluded that students who redeemed vouchers improved scholastically in both Cleveland and Milwaukee: “After two years, pupils at Cleveland’s private schools performed seven percentage points higher than the national average in reading and fifteen points higher in math . . . In] Milwaukee schools, after four years, pupils in voucher schools had maths scores four percentage points higher than their unlucky public contemporaries, and six points higher in reading. ” (The Economist, September 4, 1999) If Hoxby’s assertion that consumer demands for education favorably affect school resource growth and efficiency, then voucher successes in Milwaukee and Cleveland make sense. If consumers of education in these cities cannot affect school resources because their tax shares have little influence over local school funding, then voucher systems will restore their ability to effect school resources.
Because most school dollars come from local property taxes in the U. S. , low-income families are resource-limited to schools with restricted funds or greater independence. While Gore’s plan to increase federal funding might help mitigate inequalities between school districts with disparate resources, it would come at the cost of increased school autonomy. The centralization of school funding reduces the power of parents to influence local school operations. Consequently, schools may become increasingly bureaucratic, loosing the efficiency and adaptability of a market driven industry.
Hoxby concludes that, “centralized finance cannot handle anything beyond a few readily identifiable differences in demand, because it has no means of eliciting true demand information from households. ” If school taxes become more centralized, members of society may also be driven away from their most-preferred political outcome — some may want to consume more education than the majority and others may want to consume less. Because the majority tends to favor median outcomes, however, both will be forced away from their desired spending levels.
Those who normally consume large amounts of education may loose interest in public schooling as their tax dollars contribute less to their consumption of education. Hoxby attributes the recent down turn in California’s school funding to the complete centralization of its school financing. Hoxby explains, “Since centralized finance necessarily prevents many households from investing close to their private optimum, it gives them a strong incentive to evade the system either overtly by sending their children to private schools or covertly by rephrasing some school spending as ‘off the budget’ activity fees or private lessons . . .
California’s spending slump since its centralization in 1978 is especially ominous. ” Under Gore’s plan, schools and teachers have reduced incentives to improve their performances; they lack accountability insured by competitive forces. Under Gore’s plan, public schools, which cannot teach children, nor provide a safe environment, may endure as usual. Parents might find themselves with fewer choices concerning their children’s education. Furthermore, those who cannot afford to send their children to private schools or who do not have the time or resources to educate their children at home will bear the burden of public school failures.
Since in many states these parents are disproportionately minorities with low incomes, the earnings gap between whites and minorities could continue far into the current century, stressing national stability and deriding American equality. With the upcoming election and the far-reaching ramifications it will have on education, America will have to come face-to-face with an issue too long over looked. We will have to decide whether the current educational system is working, or whether it needs to be privatized. We will have to decide how important national education is as a public good and how much we are willing to pay for it.
Furthermore, we will have to decide how to apportion educational resources in way that reflects the mores of a democratic nation founded on equality. Given the stances taken by Al Gore and George W. Bush on education, it seems right now Bush’s strategy has an edge Gore’s does not. Though both presidential candidates have their strengths and weaknesses, and both are strongly committed to improving educational standards, Gore’s unbending adherence to the NEA, the AFT, and an old educational system of debatable viability, elicits questioning.