Commentary

A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom

By David F. Salisbury
March 1, 2002

President Bush, in his State of the Union address, promised “a quality teacher in every classroom.” How Bush plans to accomplish this remains to be seen. Given his business background, he should realize that market forces and consumer choice are the most powerful means to improve the quality of a service.

For instance, when was the last time you stayed awake at night worrying about the quality of food in your local grocery store? Most people don’t think about that. The reason is because of consumer choice and competition. If a grocery store starts to sell bad food, it will lose customers. Because stores don’t like losing customers, they go to great efforts to make sure they don’t sell bad food. Most have a “satisfaction guaranteed” policy. If the customer doesn’t like something he bought, for any reason, the store will refund the customer’s money. That doesn’t happen in public schools. Customers — students and parents — may walk away, but the money stays.

All that should give Bush a strong hint about how to improve teacher quality. If he wants to see the quality of teachers and schools improve, he should encourage reforms that allow consumer choice and competition among schools. Then schools will make efforts to employ only the best teachers. Competition for consumers is what drives quality improvement in every other sector of our economy. It will do the same thing in schools.

Bush’s recent proposal for tuition tax credits is an indication that he has the right idea. But we should remember that education is primarily a local and state issue, since almost 95 percent of the tax dollars going to schools come from state and local governments. Bush was right in saying (as he did during his campaign) that he didn’t want to be the superintendent of education. Therefore, he should encourage legislators in the 50 states to carry the ball for school choice.

Hopefully Bush won’t try to invent a new federal program to put 100,000 quality teachers in U.S. schools. Bill Clinton’s COPS program, which promised 100,000 new police officers on the streets, showed how wasteful such federal meddling can be. Large portions of the money from COPS were wasted because the funds got spent for other purposes or were used to supplant local funds. This is the typical pattern for most federal programs.

The federal government can do much more to harm education in America than it can to help it. Federal “aid” to education has only created a web of regulation and bureaucracy, which prevents public schools from responding in unique and creative ways to their customers — parents and students. Even the defenders of government schools implicitly acknowledge this when they complain that it is “unfair” that charter schools and private schools aren’t burdened by the same regulations and restrictions they must function under. Since federal “help” always comes with paperwork and regulation, more federal involvement in local schools will hurt, not help.

It appears that political leaders at the state and local level are recognizing that the problem with education isn’t a lack of good teachers or even a lack of funding but overburdening bureaucracy. This year there were 20 states that proposed implementing school choice either through vouchers or tuition tax credits as a way to end discrimination between public and private schools and nurture positive marketplace pressures in education. Today we have 10 states that have passed school choice measures. Such actions at the local level address the problem in the right way. That’s because they begin to free parents, teachers, and students from a bureaucratized monopoly that doesn’t respond to consumer demand.

Bush’s ideal of a quality teacher in every classroom can best be realized by unleashing the same power that gives us quality food, cars, telephones, doctors and plumbers. That power is free enterprise. Consumers making choices is what drives quality up in every other economic sector. Education is no different. School choice options, implemented at the state and local level are the key that will make the president’s vision a reality. Without free enterprise, no amount of federal money or government mandate will make much difference.

David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.