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Classic American school classroom. Photo: Andrew Postell, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Instead of Guaranteed Basic Income, Give Families Public Education Funds Directly

One of the most significant lessons we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is government-run schools are a sclerotic institution that do not primarily or properly serve parents and students and thus do not deserve exorbitant public funding any longer.

Another lesson we have learned over recent decades is that government payments do not help families get out of poverty. Since the war on poverty, America has spent more than $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs. Yet, over that span, the poverty level remains virtually unchanged.

This is true at both the federal and local levels. Take Chicago for example.

In 2021, Chicago introduced a universal basic income pilot program that provides $500 per month to 5,000 families. Although well-intended, this program will barely make a dent in relieving poverty in the Windy City.

In 2021, Chicago Public Schools had a total budget of $7 billion and spent $29,305 (combined operational and instructional) per student. Despite this massive amount of spending, less than 25% of all CPS students tested at or above the state proficiency level for reading and math in 2021.

Throughout much of the 2021 school year, CPS also closed its schools for in-person learning, forcing its 350,000 students to rely on much inferior remote learning.

While CPS was spending boatloads per student and its 653 schools remain closed for much of the year, private and parochial schools in the Windy City mostly remained open for in-person learning.

Even more importantly, the average private school tuition in Chicago is much lower than its public school counterpart. In 2022, the average cost of tuition at a private school in Illinois was $8,389.

Aside from the sheer waste of money and lack of academic prowess, public schools are also less safe than private schools.

According to a 2018 national study on safety in public and private schools, “principals in private schools are much less likely to report the presence of strict school safety practices than their public school counterparts; also, due to lower likelihood of crime-related incidences at their campuses, we conclude that private schools may offer a school environment that is more suitable for long-term success.”

So, if private schools generally perform better academically while at a lower cost per student than public schools, and they do so in an environment that is safer and more conducive to long-term success, why in the world do we not fund students directly and allow parents to decide which schools their children should attend?

Moreover, given that most parents strongly support school choice, especially those whose children are stuck in dangerous and underperforming public schools, it would make perfect sense to send public education dollars directly to parents.

The benefits of this funding model would be a boon to families. If all families in Chicago received $29,000 to fund their child’s education, they would be able to save a significant amount of money in an education savings account that could be used to pay for college tuition or any other post high-school career development courses.

The amount of money parents and students could stow away would also make moot the calls for increased social programs.

This modest proposal would single-handedly transform the sinking U.S. education system. By ushering in a newfound and much-needed sense of competition, schools of all types would strive to best-serve their customers: parents and students.

This would be a welcome contrast from the status quo, wherein public schools are less concerned with pleasing parents and catering to the needs of their students, and more concerned with bureaucratic nonsense.

Furthermore, by tethering public education funding to the student instead of the school, parents would have a much greater role in the education of their child. This is paramount because no bureaucrat or public official can possibly better determine the unique needs of children compared to their parents.

As a former public school teacher, I have seen first-hand how backward the public education system has become. For decades, government-run schools have held a near-monopoly on education in the United States. Over that span, far too many public schools have strayed from providing quality educations in a safe environment for one reason or another.

On the other hand, most private schools have kept their costs down while providing excellent education services in a safe atmosphere favorable to student success inside and outside the classroom.

As we enter year three of the pandemic, scores of public schools have already shutdown again for in-person learning. What’s worse, many are demanding more public money to “reopen safely” after the federal government already provided more than $130 billion to schools in so-called COVID-19 relief funds.

Instead of throwing money into the black holes that are public schools and anti-poverty programs, we would be infinitely better off sending that money straight to parents, who could then decide which school would be the best fit for their children to attend while building substantial savings for their post-high school endeavors.

Chris Talgo (ctalgo@heartland.orgis a former public school teacher and senior editor at the Heartland Institute.

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Chris Talgo

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