The poor performance of public education has surpassed importance on a state level and is now considered by the Council of Foreign Relations a threat to national security that will leave the country unable to compete and succeed in a global economy.
Despite the fact that the United States invests more in its students than most developed nations, large percentages of students in many states continue to underperform. Some states have taken steps to improve education systems by shifting towards competitive market practices by seeking to expand school choice and to increase accountability.
In efforts to remedy its dismal public education system, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal passed legislation this past spring supporting the expansion of a voucher program in the state.
The program provides thousands of middle- and low-income students at poorly performing public schools the opportunity to attend the private, parochial, magnet or charter school of their choice despite personal financial and geographical barriers. Grants of up to $8,800 or the average cost of public education will be available to almost half of the 700,000 students in Louisiana.
The state hopes to reduce the share of education’s cost to taxpayers, as tuition at private charter schools is often less than $5,000. Additionally, the legislation seeks through the privatization of the education market to improve competitiveness to the benefit of students and families.
In Louisiana, where the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch who are not at a basic level of Math or English Language Arts hovers around 40 percent, the need to improve education is pressing.
As an alternative to pumping funds into supporting failing public schools, the market approach of Louisiana’s legislation allows taxpayer money to flow to schools that can cost-effectively meet the state’s education requirements. The law allows families and students not only to have more control over the quality and nature of their education, but also generates more competition as students seek one of a limited but growing number of seats in a charter school.
After failing to secure Race to the Top funding for the third consecutive year, Connecticut has taken action to address its similar public education problem.
Signed in May, Senate Bill 458 widens and deepens educational opportunities for Connecticut students and applies concepts of the private market to the public education system. Namely, the bill provides for more early education spots, disincentives for schools’ poor performance, incentives for schools’ high performance, incentives to hire graduates of Connecticut teaching preparation programs and increased grants for charter schools.
A step in the right direction and away from allocating taxpayer money to inefficient systems, the bill, like that of Louisiana, seeks to improve efficiency and competitiveness and to hold schools, teachers and administrators more accountable.
The new law also changes incentives for participating in the Open Choice program aimed at racially integrating schools in the Hartford area.
Districts that meet two conditions will be able to receive the maximum state reimbursement. First, the district needs to have more than 4,000 students. Second, the district must increase its out-of-district enrollment by at least 50 percent.
The bill increases per-student annual grants for charter schools over a three-year period from $9,400 to $11,500.
Similarly, the bill uses small district reduction percentages as a financial disincentive to discourage schools whose education costs exceed the state averages and incentives for these schools to consolidate. Specifications on uniform accounting and teacher training, evaluations, tenure and termination procedures encourage greater accountability in the system.
While the legislation enacted in Louisiana provides a greater platform for competitive market forces to improve the education system, Connecticut’s recent legislation is a step towards the same positive results. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush spoke recently in Fairfield commending the legislation, but also asking the state to push for further improvements. During Bush’s two-term run as governor of Florida, the state saw an increase in education indicators, while the performance of Connecticut students worsened.
Paige Rhymer is an intern at the Yankee Institute. She is a senior studying economics at the University of Connecticut. Originally from New Jersey, she lives in Storrs.