In education policy, America sticks out like a sore thumb when compared with our international competitors.
Make that two sore thumbs, actually. In both funding and administration, our education system differs substantially from those of most developed countries in Europe and the Pacific Rim. If your source of information is our education establishment, or the policy and media organizations that carry its water, you might think the differences are as follows: America funds its education system inadequately and puts too much emphasis on alternatives outside the district-run public schools.
By international standards, the opposite is true in both cases. America spends more tax dollars per student on elementary and secondary education than nearly every other country in the world. And with just over 90 percent of students enrolled in district-run public schools, America has less parental choice and competition than most of our international competitors do.
My John Locke Foundation colleague Terry Stoops explored both of these issues in a 2012 report. If you haven’t read it yet, I think you’ll find it fascinating. For today, however, I’ll just zero in on the choice and competition piece.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issues regular compilations of education data. I just ran across the most recent version of OECD’s table depicting the distribution of students. Published in December 2012, the table divides member countries’ primary and secondary schools into three categories: public, government-dependent private, and independent private.
Despite the reputation of the United States as a bastion of choice and competition, it relies heavily on government monopolies to educate children. The difference is particularly pronounced at the high-school level. While nine out of 10 American students attend district-run public high schools, the OECD average is 81 percent. In other words, if North Carolina were to use expanded charter schools and tax-funded opportunity scholarships to double the share of our students in schools of choice, that would obviously represent a significant change in our education system – and yet it would make North Carolina only about average in the developed world in its reliance on schools of choice to deliver secondary education.
Some countries are even more parent-friendly. A majority of Belgian, Dutch, and Chilean high-school students attend private schools or charter-like public schools. About half of British and Korean students do the same, as do about a third of Australian, French, and Japanese students.
There is, in other words, absolutely nothing extraordinary about the idea that the goal of public education – preparing the next generation for the demands of good citizenship, careers, and higher education – can be accomplished by funding a variety of educational options, rather than expecting virtually all students to attend schools run by government districts. Educational competition is already standard practice in other developed countries, including many that outperform America in educational achievement.
In fact, there’s actually nothing extraordinary even in the American context about the idea of using a mixture of government and private providers to deliver public services. Think about what happens every day right here in North Carolina. We spend tax dollars to send four-year-olds to church-run preschools and child-care centers. We spend tax dollars to subsidize the tuition or student loans of high-school graduates attending private colleges and universities. We spend Medicare and Medicaid dollars to purchase medical services, devices, and drugs from private hospitals, clinics, physician practices, and pharmacies.
Few politicians or activists would suggest that all preschools and colleges should be run by governments, or that all physicians, nurses, and pharmacists should be government employees. Yet when school-choice proponents describe a similar vision for public education, a vision in which tax dollars flow to the public or private provider of choice, many politicians and activists start screaming at the top of their lungs.
I’d suggest that they just need to get out more, but it may be in the interest of decorum for them to stay inside until the screaming dies down.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and an NC Spin Panelist.