Education Task Force Recommends More of the Same

INCREASED FUNDING MIGHT – MIGHT – GET YOU A “MINIMALLY ADEQUATE” EDUCATION. CHOICE CAN DO FAR BETTER.

A year ago the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Abbeville County School District vs. The State of South Carolina. In the 3-2 ruling the court held that the state was failing to meet its obligation to provide a “minimally adequate” education to students in eight plaintiff districts. A year later, after some dispute concerning the court’s authority, we are getting an idea of what “minimally adequate” might mean to lawmakers.

The Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force, created by House Speaker Jay Lucas in response to the decision, has issued its first report. The report contained a flurry of recommendations from both the task force as a whole, and from the task force’s five subcommittees.

Some of the most notable recommendations include:

  • Increasing the amount of state dollars school districts with extreme poverty receive for each impoverished student they instruct.
  • Leasing more buses, which may have Wi-Fi access, in an attempt to decrease bus ride times for students.
  • Creating an “education infrastructure bank” to finance the construction of educational facilities via loans.
  • Using assessments to evaluate individual pre-K programs and directing state Department of Education and Office of First Steps assistance to programs that aren’t providing high quality learning.
  • Putting all pre-K programs under the authority of one state agency.
  • Consolidating the back office functions of districts (accounting, human resources, facilities maintenance, safety, IT, etc.) or consolidating entire districts.
  • Increasing compensation and other incentives for teachers in plaintiff districts in order to attract more high quality teachers.

There is one glaring omission in all these recommendations. The task force has neglected to mention one of the most effective educational reforms, school choice. Nowhere in the report is there a reference to South Carolina’s small existing tax credit scholarship program (available only to exceptional needs students). Nor is there any hint that a new choice program could improve the state system’s performance.

Which is too bad, because the empirical evidence is overwhelming.

Out of the 12 empirical studies that have used random assignment (the gold standard of social science testing) to determine the effects of school choice programs on student’s academic achievement, six found a positive benefit for all student participants, five found positive results for some students but not all, and only one found no impact.

Moreover, the benefits of school choice have been found to extend beyond those students directly participating in the programs. Out of 23 empirical studies that examine the effect of school choice on public schools, 22 found that the availability of school choice programs boosted academic performance at public schools. 

Yet almost all the task force’s recommendations amounted to the one thing that hasn’t improved quality at public schools – increased funding.

It should be emphasized here that the plaintiff districts in the Abbeville case already receive on average $1,200 more in revenue per pupil than do other districts. And it was just over a year ago that the state funding formula for schools was altered, via the budget, to increase, by 20 percent, the amount of funding schools receive for each impoverished student.

The task force recommendations that don’t amount to a request to increase funding – better monitoring of pre-K programs and school district consolidation – are a mixed bag. The evidence for any long lasting positive academic impact from national or state pre-K programs is virtually non-existent. District consolidation, on the other hand, even if it doesn’t improve academic performance, has the potential to save millions in taxpayer dollars. A 2005 study authorized by then Governor Mark Sanford found that reducing the number of school districts to one per county could save the state more than $21 million annually.

Unfortunately, the premise to this entire debate is that money is the problem. It isn’t.

The Policy Council has previously documented the lack of any positive correlation between school district funding levels and academic achievement in South Carolina. This research reflects similar findings nationally. Despite a near tripling of the cost of putting a child through a K-12 public education since 1970, academic achievement across the nation has stagnated. This finding is further supported by meta-studies examining the results of hundreds of other studies on the effects of funding on student achievement. 

Bear in mind, too, that repeatedly increasing funding for education doesn’t simply not work. It also depletes needed resources in other parts of state government – roads, social services, flood recovery, and so on.

School choice policies, by contrast, are a win-win. They have been shown to improve academic achievement, as discussed above, and they cost less. There have been six empirical studies (see p.15 of the pdf) examining the fiscal impact of school choice on taxpayers, all of which have found the policies save public money. Accordingly, multiple surveys have found the average cost of a year’s tuition at a private school in South Carolina to be under $5,000, while the average yearly funds expended per child in South Carolina public schools is roughly $11,500. 

In short: As long as we’re recommending ways to improve South Carolina’s school system, we might as well recommend something that works. Increased funding by itself does not. School choice does.

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