Chris Cargill: Freedom of Education Can Help Idaho Improve Outcomes

By Chris Cargill

This month, the Mountain States Policy Center released our comprehensive Idaho survey. By browsing through the numbers, almost everyone can find something they like or may not agree with.

Regarding education, the results were clear and can be summed up in three simple points:

• Idahoans believe education is their top priority and don’t mind spending more.

• The public thinks that Idaho’s K-12 public schools and student outcomes are in poor shape.

• Idahoans are not sure what “school choice” or educational freedom means—but those who do support the idea.

None of this is a big surprise. However, the results lead to a host of other questions, particularly around spending.

For years, if not decades, education activists have repeated the claim that public education is underfunded. How many times have you seen the stories of teachers who bought their own school supplies? It should come as no surprise that the public thinks schools need more money.

But even when government education budgets increase dramatically, it never seems to be enough. Consider the fact that many state budgets spend the most on K-12 education, including in Idaho and Washington. In both states, K-12 funding accounts for about 50% of total state spending. And that’s just the state part. Millions more for schools come from local funding through levies and federal funds.

Where is this money spent? How much do we spend per student per year? It varies by school district and state. For example, Idaho’s largest school district has the resources to spend nearly $15,000 per student per year. For a classroom of 25 students, that’s $375,000.

Anyone who thinks we should be spending more on K-12 education needs to be able to answer two simple questions: what spending per student is sufficient, and how do we know when we’re spending enough?

Unfortunately, these questions are never answered. Should we be spending $20,000 per student? How about $30,000?

Should a state spend 60% of its budget on K-12? How about 80%? What other priorities would be sidelined if policymakers decided to invest even more in K-12?

There is hardly any connection between education expenditure and performance. If spending was the key, the United States would have the best schools in the world, as the US spends more than any other industrialized nation.

It is no longer sufficient to simply say that all problems would be solved if only the system had more money. States that spend the most do not necessarily have the best results, and states that spend the least do not have the worst results.

Most other states, as well as the District of Columbia, offer several educational opportunities for families. They recognize that one size does not fit all and that we must be willing to try new things to improve educational outcomes for all children.

Now is the time for policymakers to clearly define educational freedom and show how it can improve outcomes for all. It’s not about closing public schools. As the West Virginia Supreme Court recently ruled, states can fully fund public schools while promoting freedom of education.

It’s about providing opportunities for all children, regardless of where they live or how they learn. Because, as the Idaho Democratic Party recently tweeted, “A zip code should not determine a student’s access to quality education.”

Chris Cargill is President and CEO of the Mountain States Policy Center, an independent market research organization based in Idaho. Online at Chris Cargill: Freedom of Education Can Help Idaho Improve Outcomes

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