More and more Americans these days seem to understand that if there's one good way to finance and deliver education, it certainly isn't the way the government does it now. In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear that there may be many good ways to do it, all of which employ elements of choice, competition and the private sector.
Among the innovations worthy of note are those from two neighboring New England states, Vermont and New Hampshire. They are clearly doing something right, or at least less wrong than what's going on in almost every other state: both are spending close to the national per pupil average for education and both spend less than the national average for teacher salaries, while student performance in both states is consistently at or near the very top in the country.
I think there's a direct connection in these states between student performance and the degree to which education is run and paid for at the local level instead of at the state level. In New Hampshire, 90 percent of education money comes from local government and only 6 percent comes from the state, compared to the national averages of 44 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
Some have objected to the New Hampshire system because it has produced the highest property taxes in the nation. However, citizens there shoulder the lowest burden of overall state and local taxation of any citizens in the country. New Hampshire, in fact, remains the one state which has neither a personal income tax nor a broad-based sales tax. (Its economy, not by coincidence, has been consistently robust, outperforming that of almost every state in the last two decades.)
In Vermont, 61 percent of education funding is derived locally and 34 percent comes from the state. That's practically the same as the average for Michigan, though our uniquely complicated education funding formula produces wide variations from district to district. The two New England states, however, have been considerably more innovative than Michigan when it comes to education.
Following the principle of "He who pays the piper calls the tune," less involvement by state government means more local control by the very people who are most involved with education in the first place. That means teachers, principals and parents. Less state involvement usually means less bureaucracy and politics, lower costs, more freedom for innovation, fewer schemes from professional "educrats" in state capitols to "homogenize" and mold young minds.
Greater emphasis on local control also fractures the power of teachers' unions, which is why their leadership has generally favored centralization. It's easier to get your way statewide by buying a few legislators than by bowling over large numbers of parents and local school boards. In this state, the Michigan Education Association--a teachers' union--is widely regarded as one of Lansing's most powerful lobbies.
Back in New Hampshire, the small town of Epsom is the home of a pathbreaking new experiment that is turning into what The New York Times labels "a national testing ground for plans that offer parents a choice as to where their offspring will go to school."
Enacted late last year, the Epsom plan grants a $1,000 property tax rebate to parents who send a child to any school, public or private, other than the local public high school. For every family that opts for the rebate arrangement, Epsom will save $3,600 off the $4,600 it now pays per pupil to Pembroke Academy, the public school. The plan's author, Jack Kelleher, argues that the program combats the drawbacks of "a government monopoly over schools" by fostering "choice and competition." "This is the only program I know of," he says, "where the more people participate, the more the government saves."
Something even more interesting--and extremely unusual--has been going on in Vermont for decades. It might properly be called the nation's oldest education voucher plan.
Nearly half of Vermont's 240 or so towns have no public high school and do not belong to any of the state's high school districts. School boards in these towns either designate a nearby public high school and pay the full tuition for any local student to attend it, or simply pay to any approved nonsectarian high school in the nation (that a local student chooses to attend) a tuition amount equal to the average Vermont public high school tuition--in effect, a voucher plan.
Most of the students over the years who have utilized the voucher option have chosen to go to nearby public or private schools in Vermont. But not a small number have gone out of state and one young Vermonter even used a voucher to enroll some years ago at a school in Ketchum, Idaho.
The lessons from New Hampshire and Vermont cry out for attention in Michigan, where the conventional wisdom is that what's needed is not just more money for education but a higher share of it coming from the state as well. Instead of the more money approach, maybe what we should be concentrating on is a bold departure from the past--one that emphasizes local control and enhanced parental choice.