Suetonius' "The Lives of the Caesars" was the tabloid of the Roman Empire. From Tiberius' "little fishes" to Nero fiddling while Rome burned, Suetonius had access to all the dirt.
Today, people draw many parallels between the modern United States and our Roman counterparts. The debate about this comparison rages each and every day, but one aspect of America that is undoubtedly in decline is the quality of education.
Here are some facts: Since 1975, the inflation-adjusted amount of money we spend per student has doubled, while the average class size for public schools has decreased to 15. Despite these efforts, and others, U.S. student achievement has remained flat. Meanwhile, other countries continue to improve and outpace us – while spending far less per student.
This creates several problems for the U.S. First, we risk falling behind in an increasingly global economy. Losing our competitive edge would reduce our standard of living. Second, education is the key to social mobility. With a proper education, an individual gains the necessary tools to compete in this world, and to increase their quality of life.
Unfortunately, we've been treating the symptoms of poverty instead of the cause by heaping on one social initiative after another. Rather than creating more fiscally unsustainable entitlement programs that serve to lock people into poverty, we need to fix our elementary and secondary educational institutions to equip individuals to climb the ladder of social mobility.
If spending were the solution, then Washington, D.C. – which spends $18,475 per student – would far outperform Mississippi, which spends less than $7,928 per pupil. Instead, Mississippi boasts a higher high school graduation rate of 62 percent than the District of Columbia at 59 percent.
Clearly, indiscriminately throwing money at the problem isn't the answer. Of the actions we can take, one is paramount: spending the money more effectively – exactly what other countries are doing to yield a superior quality of education.
Historically, the most successful government educational program is the G.I. Bill, which provides educational benefits to military veterans. The bill works by giving our service veterans vouchers redeemable for educational expenses. The recipient is free to spend the voucher at any educational institution they choose – provided certain criteria are met. What if we took the principles of the G.I. Bill and applied it to K-12 education?
By tethering the existing funding for individual student to the student rather than the school, we'd see an effect similar to that of the G.I. Bill. Rather the money being spent on public schools' centralized educational bureaucracies, it could be spent on any school in the district. This would allow parents and students to seek out the best schools and incentivize teachers and administrators at underperforming schools to improve – or suffer the consequences.
This leaves the autonomy of private schools intact, while giving disadvantaged parents and children the freedom to choose the best school for their needs. In states such as Florida and Louisiana, where a voucher system has been instituted, the quality of education has increased dramatically.
Closer to home, magnet schools in inner-city Nashville have transformed academic slums into educational beacons, better preparing students for careers and further education that allows them to escape the government monopoly on education. Sadly, the Department of Justice has sued the state of Louisiana to put an end to educational mobility. Apparently the irony of locking minority children into failing schools in a southern state is lost on Attorney General Eric Holder.
In public policy there are no silver bullets, and no single policy will completely fix our educational system and reverse the decline of academic achievement. Someone who argues otherwise is peddling snake oil. While school vouchers are only a partial solution, they are a step in the right direction.
Let's resolve not to be like Emperor Nero, who, according to Suetonius, fiddled on the roof while Rome burned around him. Condemning disadvantaged children to the educational machinery of the state is unconscionable, especially when solutions are in plain sight.
Let's put our money where our mouth is by instituting common-sense reforms – and affording these students a shot at a better life.
Adam Prosise is a senior in economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.