Public education is doing worse with more money, so let’s give parents more options

If an educational option costs less and produces better results, wouldn’t it be foolish not to fund it? Yet the opposite is happening.

As a nation, the U.S. is spending an average of $13,185 per pupil annually to fund K-12 public education. 

Homeschool parents, on the other hand, spend less than one-seventh of that – around $700-1,800 per pupil annually, according to recent estimates. 

If public school advocates could justify this whopping difference by proving these schools substantially raise students’ academic performance or advance their future careers, they could argue that any form of education outside public school (including homeschooling) will drain funds away from an important “public good.” 

But homeschoolers and other private school educators can accomplish these goals for a much lower price, showing the argument doesn’t hold water. 

Educational goals should consider our students’ overall health, performance and well-being. And the fact is many homeschooled and private school students are enjoying high academic achievement and a successful transition into adulthood outside the public system. 

Forcing students into a one-size-fits-all public school model and adding funding doesn’t mean we are providing more access to education or more school opportunity. In fact, we are robbing families of their freedom to choose.

At what point do we decide the cost of this “public good” outweighs its presumed benefits? 

Where public school funding goes 

Even though public-school funding continues to increase, not all of this money ends up supporting the stated priorities of public education’s bureaucrats.

“In virtually every public school throughout the country, teachers are paid primarily according to their credentials, seniority, and ‘additional’ work assignments and not at all according to subject taught, number of students served, or the difficulty or importance of their assignments,” writes Professor Jay P. Greene in a review of “Educational Economics” by Marguerite Roza. 

“The net effect of this arrangement is that labor costs, the bulk of per-pupil spending, are distributed by formulas that are completely unaligned with stated priorities.”

Greene cites a running list of examples where higher per-pupil spending went against stated priorities: 

  • For schools with more-advantaged students (against the stated priority of greater funding to low-income students) 
  • For extracurricular activities, electives, and sports (against the stated priority of focusing resources on core subjects such as math, reading, history, and science) 
  • For Advanced Placement (AP) and gifted classes rather than remedial ones (against the stated priority of remedial instruction to help lagging students) 

These gaps between stated priorities and uncomfortable realities only widened with the COVID-19 pandemic, which rushed billions into public school coffers while student enrollment actually declined (and is projected to continue declining). 

For example, Michigan schools churned through $1.4 billion of the $5.7 billion in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, although journalists noted wryly that “some spending seems unrelated to COVID-19.” 

Questionable expenses included $1.9 million for replacing elevators, $1.3 million for new building furniture, $30,000 for a “cultural consultant,” and more than $800,000 for a line item described as “indirect costs.” 

(Those came from the schools that actually disclosed their spending – other schools in Michigan refused to provide their records despite a Freedom of Information Act request.) 

Meanwhile, Tennessee school districts were caught using nearly $3.5 billion in COVID-19 recovery funding on such items as mattress pads, instant pots, Apple pens, toaster ovens and teaching conferences – few, if any, of which went to help students in desperate need during the pandemic.

“During a time when many people were out of work due to government closures, public schools were receiving billions of dollars, handing out bonuses and purchasing items from retractable bleachers to virtual reality goggles,” Beacon Center of Tennessee wrote in its report on the state’s education spending. “Teachers who feel their work went unappreciated while department heads were getting stipends or installing new sound systems should want answers from their districts.” 

Overall decline in academic performance 

Meanwhile, the overall academic performance of public-school students continues to decline.

Just to cite one recent example: “Average scores for age 9 students in 2022 declined 5 points in reading and 7 points in mathematics compared to 2020,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress said of a recent study. “This is the largest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first ever score decline in mathematics.” 

While this drop in performance is sometimes blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic, many critics argue that the pandemic only accelerated the decline that was already happening. 

“As officials overseeing the national tests themselves recognize, test scores have been stagnant or declining since at least 2009, and gaps between high- and low-scorers have been widening,” wrote author Natalie Wexler in a recent Forbes op-ed. 

“To be sure, the recent scores are alarming. But it’s important to understand that students weren’t making progress before the pandemic, so that we have a better understanding of how to undo the damage.” 

In contrast to this dismal picture, homeschool families have seen significantly better academic results than their public-school counterparts for many years, even before the pandemic. 

As a group, homeschool students tend to perform significantly above average on their ACTs and SATs, “notwithstanding the parents’ income and education.” They also enjoy a higher average college graduation rate of 67% when compared to their public-school peers’ graduation rate of only 57.5%. 

A new paradigm 

The argument that any educational alternative to public schools will hurt our nation’s students carries an underlying assumption: education is largely a commodity, a “public good” that can be provided equally to everyone, just like our roads and other public utilities. 

But that’s not true. 

Education is far more complex than a commodity that can be bought, sold, or even constructed like a highway.  

It is more like a route to a destination that differs for every individual, and families should be free to choose the pathway that best meets their needs. 

As homeschoolers have demonstrated for decades, that pathway does not always have to be government-funded public education. 

More and more parents are realizing that the public schools are failing in their objectives to prepare future generations for a successful adulthood. The pandemic only highlighted the schools’ academic failures to the point where it can no longer be ignored. 

Instead of pouring additional money into a broken system, we should be devoting our efforts to giving parents more resources and opportunities to select the educational option they believe will best fit their children – with or without government funding.