Just one day after Pennsylvania celebrated Tax Freedom Day 2002—the day when citizens stop toiling just to pay their federal, state, and local taxes and are finally free to work for themselves and their families—public school lobbyists began pushing a school tax increase of nearly $3 billion. But will more dollars improve public education in Pennsylvania?
Everyone recognizes the importance of a quality education for the children of our commonwealth. But the proposed tax increase, known as the “Successful Schools Budget” (HB 2344) and sponsored by state Rep. Nicholas Micozzie, R-Delaware, rests on two faulty propositions that ensure it will do little to actually improve education for our children. The first is that the public schools do not have enough money to do the job. The second is that more money will lead to higher student achievement.
Let’s look at the facts behind each of these propositions. First, do the state’s public schools really require a larger slice of Pennsylvanians’ paychecks? From 1989 to 2001, Keystone State citizens were obliged to provide the public school system with steady funding increases totaling nearly $7 billion. This school year, the National Education Association labor union estimates total revenues for Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts will top more than $17.4 billion—or $10,400 for every public school student. And while this funding level continues to increase annually—regardless of the system’s performance—school officials always insist there’s not enough money and threaten to increase taxes or cut programs. Pennsylvania citizens rightly wonder if there is any amount that ever would be “enough.”
The second false proposition is that a cause-and-effect relationship exists between public school expenditures and test scores. Nationwide per-pupil expenditures have increased by 22.9 percent in constant dollars over the past 20 years, yet standardized test scores have remained practically flat—even with the tests being “dumbed down.” Study after study also confirms the weak correlation between spending and student achievement. In short, good education can’t simply be bought.
What, then, will help our schools improve? Both experience and economics suggest that a system devoid of proper incentives results in highly variable quality. The late Albert Shanker, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, demonstrated a firm grasp of the problem when he said, “It’s time to admit that public education operates ike a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”
Viewed in this light, Micozzie’s proposal fails to answer—or even ask—any of the important questions that will lead us toward more successful schools—questions such as: What incentives are in place to encourage government-run schools to deliver a high-quality education for all students? If children do not thrive in one school, what opportunities exist to go elsewhere? Are teachers rewarded according to how well they teach their students? Are public school budgets tied to how well they turn out knowledgeable young scholars? How often do schools that fail to educate children close their doors?
Legislators therefore would do well to embrace reforms that empower parents with greater choice and responsibility, encourage families to take education more seriously, and allow teachers and schools to treat parents as customers instead of captives. Pennsylvania’s “Education Improvement Tax Credit,” established last year, is a step in the right direction. This type of program should be expanded because it introduces the kind of incentives that will ultimately improve public education—and potential save taxpayers money in the process.
The only remaining question is why a $3 billion school tax increase that will do almost nothing to help students is being seriously considered when Pennsylvania already faces a $1 billion budget deficit. And the answer to that lies in the political power of the many special interest groups that stand to gain from higher public school spending, specifically the Pennsylvania State Education Association labor union.
But children trapped in poorly performing schools don’t need political games and their overburdened parents don’t need higher tax bills. The key to improving public education is returning to its original purpose; that is, the education of the public through diverse means instead of a government monopoly. By introducing incentives for innovation and productivity that come from increased competition among schools and greater choices for parents, our education system will finally begin to resemble our market economy rather than the failed communist economy of the past.
# # #
Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher, is president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a nonprofit, independent, non-partisan research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.