| July 11, 2013

Policymakers should fund what works

"There's a tradition in education," former New York City schools chancellor Frank Macchiarola once observed, "that if you spend a dollar and it doesn't work, you should spend two dollars; and not only that, you should give those two dollars to the same person who couldn't do the job with only one."

That tradition is alive and well in Oklahoma. Earlier this year the Tulsa World reported that national education activist Jonah Edelman, founder and chief executive officer of Stand for Children, was in Tulsa to announce that his organization is launching an affiliate in Oklahoma. “If Oklahoma wants to get results for students, it needs to fund the reforms it has already passed,” Edelman said. One example he cited was a recent reform of the Reading Sufficiency Act.

Brian Hunt, a former president of Tulsa’s school board who now serves as executive director of Stand for Children Oklahoma, agreed. He told The Oklahoman that the organization’s main goal this year is “funding the reforms that are on the books.” Various policymakers have echoed this theme — a theme which is quite frankly nothing short of absurd.

Instead of demanding even more money for the government’s monopoly system, here’s what policymakers and activists should have said to taxpayers this year:

We are profoundly sorry. Despite spending more than $8,000 per student in Oklahoma (the Census Bureau says $8,863; the NEA says $8,285), only 27 percent of our state’s fourth graders are proficient readers. In other words, there are currently more than 34,000 fourth graders in this state who are unable to read at grade level — despite the fact that we’ve already spent some $30,000 on each of their educations. It is with deep sorrow that we are forced to acknowledge that, as one critic has noted, we “spend billions of dollars a year to achieve heretofore unknown levels of semiliteracy and illiteracy among otherwise normal children.” We have failed at our most basic task, and we have damaged countless lives. What’s worse, we continue to do it year after year. We can now populate five OU football stadiums with all of the school-produced adult illiterates in this state. We are deeply sorry for the lives we have damaged, many of them unalterably.

That’s what the naked emperors should have said. Instead, here’s what they did say:

Oh, you mean you want them to read? Well now that’s gonna cost you extra.

‘What Works’

One state lawmaker made the statement that Stand for Children Oklahoma is “going to try to take the side of what works.” One hopes that is true. One hopes that they going to take the side of vouchers and tax credits, for example. For as Greg Forster points out this month in Perspective, “the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools.”

  • Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science (Table 1). Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.
  • Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools (Table 2). Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.

Oddly, during his visit to Tulsa Mr. Edelman was quoted as saying, “If you look at the research on vouchers, there is no indication of student achievement progress.”

If indeed “the goal is student achievement,” as Mr. Edelman says — if the goal is to do what works — activists and policymakers should not be clamoring for something that doesn’t work: increased government spending on the monopoly system.

Instead, they should be calling for more private-school choice.

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