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Class Notes
The economics of education
(Published September 22, 2003)


In Mr. Schumannís advanced placement economics class at Bell Multicultural High School, students are learning about supply and demand. The theory states that if something is cheap and plentiful, everyone will want it.

By this reckoning, education must be in high demand. Yet, this past week weíve seen a vote by the members of Congress to make education not only free, but cheaper than free Ė selected parents are being paid $7,000 to send their children to school.

Perhaps Iím being deceptive. In fact, the $7,000 isnít a payment, but a voucher, and it doesnít actually go to parents, it goes into private schoolsí bank accounts. The reason for this is to allow poor D.C. school kids trapped in failing public schools to escape into quality private schools. Yet, D.C. already has more school choice than any jurisdiction in the country, with literally hundreds of free public charter schools serving a wide variety of constituencies.

Is it more choice that we need? This recent action by a Congress within which we have no voice makes a public school teacher like me suspicious.

The current Republican administration would like to see public schools fade away and private, for-profit schools take their place. The goal is to introduce competition and the free market into elementary and secondary education. The theory is that competition will improve our educational system.

Letís look at what happens when we add competition to education. Right now, we have lots of competition in higher education, with numerous private colleges and universities. The U.S. higher education system is arguably the best in the world. Our research institutions are world class. Enrollments are growing. A higher percentage of Americans go to college than citizens in any other nation in the world.

This is great news for educators, and even better news for advocates of competition, right? Wrong.

The reality is that college education is only for the minority. Only about 25 percent of U.S. citizens have college degrees. Of those who go to college, many struggle to afford tuition and leave with immense debt; in 2002, average debt of new college graduates was approximately $16,000.

If our vision is for universal education, the private approach has huge disadvantages. Seventy-five percent of U.S. citizens are "left behind" at the college level, and those who do go incur big costs. And the big costs are directly due to the free market. College tuition has grown at a rate much faster than inflation for the last five years.

What does this mean for competition in our public schools? Itís the law that everyone under the age of 18 must go to school. If competition gives us 25 percent, weíre about 75 percent short. But if you are wealthy and can afford private schools, do you really care about keeping public schools open?

Some might argue that the goal is just to shake things up, not close schools. I would say to them: Look closely at another recent law passed by Congress, "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB). NCLB states that schools which fail to meet their performance targets are put on a reform plan, and after three years of no improvement, can be closed by the government and their students sent to other schools.

Connecting the dots, vouchers and NCLB are combining to move kids from public to private schools. We used to call this "privatization," not "school choice." It works like this: Set high goals for public schools. Watch public schools fail to meet those goals. Fund private schools with public money. Enroll public school students in private schools. Close public schools.

Are the goals for NCLB high? By 2014, the requirement for a quality education, by law, is that 100 percent of students reach the "proficient" level on standardized tests.

Right now, schools in the District are anywhere from 5 percent to 40 percent "proficient," with a solid majority of students below the "basic" category in mathematics. Sometime between now and 2014, will the 60 percent-plus students who are below "basic" all move to "proficient"? Thatís the task defined by NCLB, and if your school doesnít achieve it, or make solid progress toward it each and every year, that school can be closed.

Perhaps now we might want to look at what Mr. Schumannís students will be learning in a few weeks: the law of diminishing returns. This law states that you get a big return on your initial investment Ė perhaps lifting 80 percent of students into the proficient category. But to reach those last 20 percent, you have to spend much more Ė sometimes even 10 times as much as you spent to get the first 80 percent.

The D.C. public school system now is struggling to pay teachers their contractually agreed raise. Do we really think that more funding is going to magically appear?

Or is it more likely that schools will fail to meet their NCLB targets, vouchers will be expanded and, as public schools close one by one, the American public school system will be that which is left behind?


Matt Wennersten is a third year mathematics teacher at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program ( Please send stories, comments or questions to

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator