Public Schooling as a 1971 Chevy Impala

U.S. student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated (reading and math) or declined (science) since nationally-representative NAEP tests were first administered around 1970. Meanwhile, education spending has risen by a factor of 2.3 over that same period, from $5,247 per student to about $12,000, in inflation-adjusted (2008) dollars. [To get the most up-to-date figures you have to use multiple sources and adjust to 2008 dollars yourself, but an older data series can be found in this table.]

1970 Chevy Impala

What would the U.S. automobile industry look like if it were run the same way, and had suffered the same productivity collapse, as public schooling? To the left is a 1971 Chevrolet Impala. According to the New York Times of September 25th, 1970, it originally sold for $3,460. That’s $19,011 in today’s dollars. If cars were like public schools, you would be compelled to buy one of these today, and to pay $43,479 for that privilege (2.3 times the original price).

But, thank heavens, the automobile industry is part of the free enterprise system that thrives everywhere in our economy outside the classroom. A brand new 2008 Impala, pictured to the right, costs only slightly more in real terms than the 1970 model did: $21,975. But it is a very different beast.2008 Impala

Apart from its far superior fit and finish, it comes standard with technologies that could barely be imagined 40 years ago: OnStar satellite communications, side-curtain airbags, and anti-lock brakes, to name a few. And if you don’t like the looks of it, or if it doesn’t fit the needs of your family, you can buy something else  — something bigger or smaller, faster or more fuel efficient.

So, do you wish the automobile industry were run like public schooling, or do you wish that public education was part of our free enterprise system, with financial assistance to ensure universal access to the marketplace?