Dr. Matthew Ladner

The productivity of spending in our public education system has collapsed over the past half century. We spend beyond the dreams of avarice for a public school superintendent of the 1960s, but we don’t produce better results. For decades, we have been throwing money at our public schools and failing to notice that students were failing to benefit.

Fortunately, this status-quo will not endure forever. A growing consensus on both left and right recognizes that our most disadvantaged students suffer most from the shortcomings of our schools. Children relying most heavily on schools to prepare them for the future are tragically the most likely to be shortchanged.

Our nation’s poorest families cannot afford to buy into high-quality suburban school districts, or to pay private school tuition in addition to their school taxes. Policymakers from both parties have therefore increasingly embraced policies creating options for parents. Nationwide, nearly a fourth of K-12 students won't be attending their neighborhood public schools this fall, opting instead for an array of public and private options- including magnet, charter, private and home schooling. For many, especially for inner-city children, however, these options remain far too scarce and this momentum must accelerate.

Charter school operators such as KIPP, Yes Academies and Amistad have proven definitively that low-income inner city children can learn at an accelerated pace, and can even outperform our complacent suburban schools and attend elite universities. These innovators face huge political and practical obstacles in making these schools more widely available, but don’t bet against them. Already, they have settled the question of whether we must settle for today’s failed status quo: we don’t. Our students can learn. We adults simply have to learn how to follow the example of those who are getting the job done.

Our students need a market for K-12 schools. The market mechanism rewards success and either improves or eliminates failure. This has been sorely lacking in the past, and will be increasingly beneficial in the future. The biggest winners will be those suffering most under the status-quo.

New technologies and practices, self-paced instruction and data-based merit pay for instructors, may hold enormous promise. Before the current era of choice based reforms, they didn’t fit the 19th Century/unionized model of schooling, so they weren’t seriously attempted. Bypassing bureaucracy, a new generation has begun to offer their innovative schools directly to parents. Some have already succeeded brilliantly. Some states have been much keener than others to allow this process. Expect the laggards to fall in line eventually. We can hardly continue to cower in fear that someone somewhere might open a bad school when, in reality, we are surrounded by them now.

A market system will embrace and replicate reforms which work, and discard those that fail to produce. A top-down political system has failed to perform this task. Where bureaucrats and politicians have failed miserably, however, a market of parents pursuing the interests of their children will succeed in driving progress.  

We cannot feel satisfied with a system that watches helplessly as a third of pupils drop out before graduation each year. We can do much better. The key lies in matching disadvantaged students with high quality teachers and school leaders. Parental choice programs help to achieve this by providing new education delivery methods.

While there will be enemies to fight this progress, but they won’t prevail. America is rousing itself from a century long slumber of stagnant schooling practices. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the coming education renaissance, so long as we have the wisdom to embrace it.

Dr. Matthew Ladner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute and an expert on educational reform and school choice. Dr. Ladner holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.
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