What $17.4 Billion Cant Buy

There are few things in Pennsylvania that $17,438,840,000 cannot buy. Yet in signing the 2003-04 Budget, Governor Rendell told Pennsylvanians that $10,400 average per-pupil revenue is simply not enough to adequately educate Pennsylvania’s children.

In an effort to regain political leverage at the bargaining table with the General Assembly, Governor Rendell line-item vetoed the $4 billion basic education subsidy stating that we must “significantly increase the insufficient amount the Commonwealth contributes to the education of our children.”

Unfortunately, Governor Rendell’s belief that more dollars will produce more scholars is not supported by the ever-growing body of evidence that reveals little to no correlation between increased spending and improved academic achievement.

Today, Pennsylvania spends more per student than 47 states and the District of Columbia, when adjusted for the cost of living. Indeed, public school expenditures in Pennsylvania increased more than 131 percent faster than the rate of inflation over the past seven years.

Yet despite generous infusions of taxpayer cash, the Class of 2003 still placed 46th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia on the SAT college entrance exam. On the state’s academic achievement test, more than 1 out of 2 seniors scored so low on the math portion that they were eligible to take it again, while 41 percent and 30 percent of test takers scored so low on the reading and writing portions, respectively, that they also qualified to retake the test.

In fact, between 2000 and 2001 Pennsylvania experienced a 10 percent increase in the number of school districts spending above the average state per-pupil expenditure and scoring below the average state test results. While 99 districts share this unflattering distinction, thereare 129 school districts in the state with below-average per-pupil adjusted spending and above-average state test results. So much for the theory that better education can be bought.

But Governor Rendell plans to improve our schools’ performance by “targeting resources to programs that we all know will improve student achievement.” Apparently, the reading, writing, and arithmetic programs taxpayers have been funding for years are well-known failures.

One program at the top of Governor Rendell’s wish list is expanded kindergarten and preschool. His support for the expansion of government’s role in these areas is based on the notion that our children are not ready to learn when they enter school. In reality, however, our children do quite well in their early years of schooling. Sadly, their academic performance only starts to decline the longer they stay in public schools.

Indeed, Mr. Rendell’s wishful thinking is as nonsensical as the Commonwealth giving an underperforming construction firm more money to remodel the first floor of the Governor’s mansion after they already completed a sub-par job on the second and third floors. Yet the Governor wants us to believe that improving the “second and third floors” of Pennsylvania’s K-12 school system can only occur by paying the same inept carpenter significantly more money to remodel the first floor of kindergarten and preschool.

Real, long-term solutions to the high cost and poor performance in our public schools will require more than just shifting and increasing school taxes and tinkering with old and creating new programs. Dramatic improvements in public education in Pennsylvania will occur only when parents can start choosing their children’s schools and schools start competing.

After all, it is choice for consumers and competition among providers that incessantly spurs innovation and improves our quality of life on a daily basis. It is the marketplace—not government control and manipulation—that has provided the world with everything good from desktop computers to life-saving medicines. In education, it will be parents who can exercise choice among competing schools that will finally fuel the engine that drives the continuous quality improvements that currently elude Pennsylvania’s public school system today.

Pennsylvania has already tried—and failed—to buy better education for our children. Instead of doing more of the same and expecting a different outcome, Governor Rendell and the General Assembly should use this opportunity to implement the proven and powerful incentives of parental choice and school competition to improve the quality of life for Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania’s children.

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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher, is president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pa.