Set Them Free

By Jonathan Calenzani

It shouldn’t surprise us, but it does. An August 4 article in The Oregonian reported that seventy-one Oregon public schools are failing, according to federal No Child Left Behind standards.

Oregon’s schools are failing despite an increase in funding of $2,161 per student between 1990 and 2000. Despite more teachers, more funding and more spending per pupil, a record number of public schools in Oregon are failing.

This shouldn’t be surprising. It isn’t surprising to anyone who has been carefully following educational policy over the last two decades. In state after state, and school district after school district, spending per pupil has increased and classroom sizes have shrunk. Neither has led to improved performance.

Consider Kansas City. Under court order to improve funding for inner-city public schools, Kansas City increased total education spending from $125 million in 1985 to $432 million in 1992. The huge increase in funding paid for new computers, gyms, science labs and anything else principals wanted. The student to teacher ratio shrank to 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district. The per-pupil spending reached the staggering amount of $11,700, the highest of any major school district. By 1997, Kansas City had the best-funded public school system of any major city.

The results of the Kansas City experiment were dismal. Test scores didn’t improve despite millions in new funding. The achievement gap between whites and blacks didn’t narrow, despite dozens of new teachers. All the money in the world couldn’t buy Kansas City good public schools. And all the money in the world won’t buy Portland good public schools.

More money and more teachers won’t save Portland Public Schools; only real, meaningful reform will. In Washington, D.C., the public schools spend over $17,000 per pupil and yet the schools are terrible. In 2003 Washington, D.C. started a small pilot voucher program. The results have been excellent, measuring both student improvement and parental satisfaction. Students who received vouchers do far better than their peers stuck in D.C.’s public schools. The best results have come from letting parents decide where they want their kids to go to school.

Currently, Oregon’s public schools spend over $10,000 per pupil. Rather than trap Oregon students at the 71 failing public schools, shouldn’t we let their parents decide where their children go?

Jonathan Calenzani is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.