Would There Be No Education Without A Department For One?

By Steven Clyde

With all the fuss over Betsy Devos’s nomination (which might be in turmoil now)[1] to be the Secretary of Education, many are still asking the same exact questions over and over, yet most seem to bind themselves to this single question:

How would education exist without a single entity controlling it all?

Here’s the thing though: This question has been answered lots of times from lots of different angles. When you have public sectors of education, your main incentives are not to teach but to acquire enrollment. Once you then have your general population of students, your incentives are to:

1.) keep the students enrolled, and

2.) appropriate the funds you’ve been given by the state for what you feel is best.

The abuse of the school boards power run rampant in almost any state you look at. Take for example the high school in McKinney, Texas who thought it would be a good idea to appropriate funds (in the form of a $220 million bond) to build a $62.8 million football stadium.[2] Is this what they mean by higher education?
If you think that’s bad, what if they actually wasted money in the billions with a “B”? According to the IES report regarding the $7 billion for the School Improvement Grants[3] which were supposed to turn around 5000 failing schools[4], there were quote:

“No significant impacts of SIG-funded models on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment of students in schools at the SIG eligibility cutoff (Figure VI.1 shows results for 2012–2013; Appendix A, Figure A.1 shows results for earlier years [2010–2011 and 2011–2012]). For 2012–2013, the impact on math test scores was 0.01 standard deviations, the impact on reading test scores was 0.08 standard deviations, and the impact on high school graduation was -5 percentage points, but these impacts were not statistically significant. We were unable to calculate an impact on college enrollment for 2012– 2013 due to insufficient sample sizes, but we found no significant impacts on college enrollment for the other two school years (the impacts for 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 were -11 and 2 percentage points; see Appendix A for more details on this analysis).”

Read the rest of the report yourselves; its mind boggling to imagine wasting billions of dollars, considering no average person could spend a billion dollars in their lifetime in a rational way (without buying 200 Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita’s).


How would this differ in private/charter schools? It would differ immensely because their incentives are different. If a teacher in a private institution fails to teach their students and this shows in the results, the teacher will be out of a job because the school will most likely lose funding (the direct funding of the parents paying out of pocket to schools). This type of funding is much different than federal/state funding, as parents now have to make conscious decisions whether to put their kids in something other than a public institution and pay for it directly. There’s two incentive forces here: the schools incentive to TEACH kids so they can maintain their student base (and hence their profit to keep the school running) and the incentive of the parents to make sure their child gets a good education (so their child can be successful in the real world one day). Both have to work in conjunction with each other. In a public system, the school only has the incentives to keep a student population in general because if you can remember back when you were young, the school you went to (if it were public) was based on the district you live in in according with the towns zoning laws. Schools know that as long as the local town has a population, they will have no problem acquiring new students no matter whether they lose a few here and there.

Consider these following finding from the National Assessment of Educational Progress comparing the test scores between private and public schools: [5]

Reading results from grade 4: “The average private school mean reading score was 7 points higher than the average public school mean reading score

Reading results from grade 8: “In the first set of analyses, all private schools were compared to all public schools. The average private school mean reading score was 1 points higher than the average public school mean reading score

Mathematics results from grade 4: “In the first set of analyses, all private schools were again compared to all public schools. The average private school mean mathematics score was 8 points higher than the average public school mean mathematics score”

Mathematics results from grade 8: “In the first set of analyses, all private schools were again compared to all public schools. The average private school mean mathematics score was 3 points higher than the average public school mean mathematics score

Even considering the empirical evidence, one might still not be completely convinced and assume that public schools still have some incentive to teach considering that if I was moving to a town in say California and was concerned about where my child went to school, would I attempt to put them in a better or worse off school as its locally rated? Of course most parents want their kids in a good school, even if they don’t have the money for private schools, but if money was the issue in the first place then they might end up in a lower income area anyway where schools are worse off. The incentives for public institutions are still clear though: Quality is not as much of a concern as quantity, and a schools “quantity” of students is where the majority of their funding lies. Here’s a great example from the state of Colorado where I live:

“Some of the increase in state funding comes from increases in the student population. In 2008-09, an additional 15,804 children are attending Colorado schools than in 2007-08. While an increase in students results in more state dollars to a district, it also brings more costs.”

The next time someone condescendingly asks you how education could ever possibly exist without the state and its funding (all taxpayer funded whether you have kids or not), ask them the questions they should’ve been asking themselves all along. You could also mention that we didn’t have a Department of Education before 1979, and that the costs of education have always been rising while the test results (science has gone down) have flat lined for decades. [6]


[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/defections-put-devos-nomination-peril-n715521

[2] http://www.cnbc.com/2016/05/10/texas-high-school-to-build-628-million-football-stadium.html

[3] https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20174013/pdf/20174013.pdf

[4] https://www2.ed.gov/print/news/pressreleases/2009/05/05112009.html

[5] https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2006461.asp

[6] https://www.cato.org/blog/public-school-spending-theres-chart

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