Saying that America’s education system is bad is kind of like saying that fourth week is mildly stressful.
Recent test scores released by a Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) paint a sobering picture. U.S. high school students are ranked 26th in math, 21st in science (down from 17th in 2009) and 17th in reading (down from 14th in 2009).
Like most big problems, there is no silver bullet. A multitude of solutions are needed including universal preschool, teacher feedback systems, higher teacher salaries, more emphasis on critical thinking over memorization, etc. However, one big issue stands out more than the rest: funding.
The problem isn’t the amount of money that the U.S. spends. The U.S. spends $15, 171 per student, more than any other nation. The problem is that the money is spent in an extraordinarily inequitable manner. That’s not to say that unequal spending is bad; schools in poor areas have greater needs so they should receive more funding. However, the system is set up so that poor schools get less money, which is incredibly backwards.
Currently, public education is funded through property taxes by district. This means that schools in poor districts get far less money due to their low-value property. The differences in funding are stark. Some school districts spend less than $4,000 per student while others spend more than $10,000. Even the Supreme Court has characterized this approach as “chaotic and unjust.”
Obviously, numerous studies show that funding directly affects the quality of schools. Underfunded schools simply cannot afford more qualified teachers and smaller class sizes, both of which affect student performance. Impoverished school districts also struggle to afford special-education staff, better computers, and a host of other key items.
Poor performance by schools in impoverished areas is a major factor in America’s bad test scores. Education inequality affects the U.S. more than other nations. Fifteen percent of the American score variation is explained by socio-economic differences between students, in contrast to less than 10 percent of score variation in Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, and Norway. Furthermore, the National Education Association (NEA) found that if one only looks at American school districts where the poverty rate is below 10 percent, the U.S. has some of the highest test scores in the world.
Unfortunately, many school districts don’t have poverty rates that low. Part of the solution lies in reducing poverty across the board. That would require a number of reforms that are beyond the scope of this article. However, no matter what reforms are taken, some districts will always be poorer than others.
In order to make up for these inequities, the U.S. must completely overhaul the way schools are funded. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that funds its schools based on the wealth of the surrounding area. In all other industrialized nations (including the ones ahead of the U.S. in education), funding for education is either distributed equally or extra funding is provided for groups or individuals who need it. For example, South Korean local school systems receive 80 percent of their funding from the central Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, and South Korean students consistently rank among the best in the world. In 1999, for every guilder (the Dutch currency up until it was replaced by the euro in 2002) the Netherlands spent on a middle class student, 1.25 guilders were allocated for a lower class student and 1.9 for a minority student. This is in direct contrast to the U.S., where white middle class pupils typically receive more education money than lower class and minority children. Unlike the U.S., the Netherlands has been consistently ranked in the top 10 best education systems in the world.
The U.S. should switch the majority of education funding to the state and federal level. Reducing education inequality is key to reducing inequality across the board. Obviously, those who do not receive a decent education are unlikely to move up the socioeconomic ladder.
Some would balk at the idea of funding local education through state and federal budgets. It would mean that people would have to pay for the education of other people’s kids. However, a lot of government programs are funded in this manner. We pay for the infrastructure and defense of people in other districts, other states, and even other countries. Why should education be different?
Furthermore, education is in the interest of everybody, even those who don’t have kids. Numerous studies find that better education is tied to better economic performance. Better-educated workers tend to be more productive and earn higher wages. A better-educated country also tends to be more innovative; it’s hard to create the next “killer app” with a populace that isn’t proficient at math or science.
Education is also key to democracy. It is simply impossible to have a functional government of the people, by the people, and for the people when the people are too dumb to make informed votes (polls show that only 40 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, 25 percent know the length of a Senate term, and only 20 percent know how many Senators there are). Furthermore, higher levels of education are directly correlated to higher voter turnout, which is important in America where voter turnout is exceptionally low (it’s actually lower than Afghanistan’s, a country where people risk their lives when they vote).
At the end of the day, people in other districts take part in the economy and government in ways that affect everyone. Their education is just as important as ours. To paraphrase John Green, I willingly pay for the education of others because I don’t like living in a country full of stupid people.