The Dismal Productivity Trend for K-12 Public Schools and How to Improve It

Richard Vedder is well known for his work on higher education. But his contribution to our understanding of the productivity problem in K−12 education is significant too. Regarding the latter in 1996, Vedder pointed out the declining productivity in K−12 education—that is, stagnant outputs with significantly greater taxpayer-funded inputs over time. To reverse the decline in productivity, Vedder offers a creative proposal to inject more competition among providers and choice for consumers into the K−12 school system, by converting American public schools into for-profit, employee-owned enterprises. The productivity problem in American public K-12 is significantly greater than in higher education.

Specifically, over the 1929−30 to 1999−2000 time period analyzed, the real increase in current spending per student in higher education increased by 267 percent, while the corresponding increase for public K−12 schools was about 874 percent. Furthermore, in the first decade of the 21st century, staffing per 100 students declined in American colleges and universities by 4.8 percent. Thus, at least one side of the higher education productivity equation has improved in recent years. However, the trend in public K−12 education has continued to worsen—during the first decade of the 21st century, public school staffing per 100 students increased by 7 percent. Perhaps it is time for public K-12 education to expand competition and choice through vouchers, tax credits, and by converting individual public schools into autonomous, employee-owned enterprise.

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