The Way Forward on Education

The nation’s deeply flawed education system must also be fixed.

The reforms in economic security proposed here will do more than improve health outcomes. The resulting gains in employment, income, and equality will also improve education outcomes. Indeed, a comprehensive and effective economic security structure will probably do more to promote positive education outcomes than any reform of the education system itself. Read More ->

We nonetheless need to vastly improve the U.S. education system.  The key is to totally redefine what we mean by public education

Stuck in the 1830s

Today, public education is the only major social policy that is stuck in the 1830s. Its essential features remain the same as those that Horace Mann and other education reformers put in place in a vanished era when Americans locked up “lunatics” in asylums,  went wild for canals, and still played "rounders." Read More ->

Under the 1830s model, students were assigned to schools based on the village or neighborhood where they lived. Schools got their funding from local property taxes. These two core rules of American public education, adopted over 180 years ago, remain the foundation of K12 education today.

We have advanced into a century that lets our children fly across oceans and send instant messages half-way around the world. Kids learn about history and science that 19th century teachers could not even imagine --a black U.S. President, atomic power, and DNA. But the house where your child lives still largely limits where your child attends a K12 school. The value of local property still pays a big chunk of the school's cost.

Segregated Schools, Unequal Education, and Inequitable Financing

Tragically, adherence to the 1830s model's policy of linking children's residence (where kids live) to their schools  (where they must attend public school) has segregated the nation's urban and suburban schools, and locked in unequal education, along racial and economic lines.

We do not compel poor people to use Food Stamps only in their neighborhood grocery stores. Nor do we prohibit seniors from getting Medicare in hospitals in the next town over.

But we largely compel urban and suburban children to attend public school only in their own--often highly segregated--city neighborhoods or suburban districts. In both the south and north, government played a huge role in segregating K12 schools along racial and economic lines.  Read More ->

To make matters worse, the 1830s model's reliance on property taxes to finance K12 schools, under today's conditions, virtually guarantees inequality in taxing and spending. State-level efforts to equalize the local tax burden and per-pupil spending often help, but severe inequities remain.  Read More ->

Tumulus Debitum

Meanwhile, for many low-income and middle-income students who finish high school and qualify for college, the cost of higher education presents an obstacle to attending and graduating.

Equally a crisis, a high share of college students who do graduate walk away with a diploma in hand and debt on their backs. They may not have learned Latin, but their graduation present is tumulus debitum: a mound of debt.

According to a 2016 report by Consumer Reports, "Today, there is a student debt class like no other: about 42 million Americans bearing $1.3 trillion in student debt that’s altering lives, relationships, and even retirement." The percentage of college graduates who finished with no debt has shrunk over the past quarter century from more than 50% to under 40%. The 60% plus who graduate with debt now average over $37,000 in the amounts that they or their parents owe. Read More ->

What the "Public" in Public Education Should Mean

As long as we stick with the 1830s model of public education, we will never have a successful system of public education--especially for low-income and minority children.

We must change the 1830s model, or we will never make progress. Public education is vital, but what "public" means must change dramatically.

The "public" in public education should be redefined to mean government's guarantee of:

  • Public Funding: Equal base spending for every child, with equal upward adjustments of spending for children with disabilities and low-income students, using a tax system that (at least within a state) imposes equal tax burdens on resources of equal value;
  • Public Access: Parental ability to enroll their children in any school--regardless of the parent's or child's residence--that a public certification agency has found to meet rigorous standards of safety, administrative competence, teacher quality and student progress; and
  • Public Oversight: Accountability of every school that receives public funding to the public certification agency, which would have the power to shut down the school if, based on consistent reporting and "stress tests," it falls short in meeting these rigorous standards.

A sound public education system should also mean free college tuition--as long as the student is doing well and making progress--and freedom from debt. 

The Path to Reform

Specifically, the American system of education should be reformed as follows:

  1. End the requirement that a student's residence limits where the student may attend a public school within a state;
  2. Discontinue the use of property taxes to pay for K12 schools;
  3. Provide each child with a Child Care and Education Account, valued at approximately $10,000 per year on average from Kindergarten through 12th grade;
  4. Increase the dollar value of the Account for students who special education needs, and lower incomes, in ways that increase economic and racial diversity;
  5. Allow parents to use the dollars in the Account to enroll their children in any K12 school in the state that has been found by a state school certification agency to meet rigorous, statewide standards of (A) safety, (B) teacher and staff certification, and (C) annual academic achievement gains for the overwhelming majority of its students, according to regional or state K12 school inspection and certification agencies.

High school graduates who qualify for college, and maintain satisfactory grade point averages, would be able--starting at age 18--to use the Account to pay for college tuition. The account's dollar value, for this purpose, would equal the average tuition at a public college in the state. This amount could be used to pay for tuition at any public or private college in the U.S. that has been found by a respected college certification agency to meet high standards of excellence.

Any state would be free to "top up" the account's dollar value if it wished to make it easier for its college students to pay for the higher tuition charged at more costly colleges, whether public or private. Students would not repay society via debt, but through the higher productivity--and taxes--they contribute as workers in a better-educated workforce and stronger economy.

Paying for Educational Equity

Finally, the financing of child care, K12 education, and college education should be reformed. Local property taxes, regressive and unequal, have no business paying for child care or education.

Through 12th grade, the financing of Child Care and Education Accounts should be shifted to the broader, fairer tax bases of state government.

Beyond high school (except for any "top up" that states may provide to increase the dollar value of the college portion of the account), the federal government should pay for the college portion of the Child Care and Education Account. Many students leave the states where they receive a college education to take jobs in other states. It therefore makes sense that the cost of making college tuition-free (or nearly so), and eliminating college debt, should be absorbed by the federal government. Its tax system will in time reap the biggest benefits as better-educated workers and a more robust economy generate higher federal payroll and income taxes.

None of these policies will make any child worse off. All students will gain more public school options (as defined above). Public accountability for quality and outcomes will improve. To the extent that equalization of per-pupil funding may reduce the amounts that certain high-income school districts now spend, the difference could be made up--if those wealthy communities really want--by using municipal tax dollars. Overall, local property taxes will decline sharply, as the cost of K12 education is shifted entirely from taxing property to states' broader tax bases Finally, students who want to attend college will no longer turn away because of the cost, and will no longer graduate with a mountain of debt.

The only obstacle is fear, which we should never allow to shortchange the well-being and the hopes of our children.