Blind Faith in Government Education: Taxpayer Money Wasted, Guaranteed

EspañolThe debate over the quality of education is currently on the table in these parts of the world. In Chile, the promise of a “free, high-quality education” was central to Michelle Bachelet’s electoral campaign. In Uruguay, former President Tabaré Vázquez — the ruling party’s official candidate and the frontrunner for the upcoming election — has said that if reelected, improving the quality of government education will be among his top priorities.

Both Bachelet and Vázquez appear to believe that all it takes to improve the quality of education is to pour tons of money into it — money that will come from the pockets of the people, of course, through higher taxes. They also share the premise that the state is the best means to achieve the desired goal, which implies that politicians and bureaucracies are by definition the best educators and financial administrators.

Based on this set of beliefs, Bachelet sent a draft tax reform to parliament that aims to raise 3 percent of GDP per year for education purposes. Meanwhile, Vázquez said that his eventual future administration will grant government education a budget equivalent to 6 percent of GDP.

A few questions arise from these proposals: what is the basis for the belief that the education problem will be solved simply by assigning more resources to it; which studies support this hypothesis; and what does the empirical evidence say?

Vázquez was president of Uruguay from 2005 to 2010. During this period, the government budget for education grew 84 percent, but the score obtained by Uruguayan students in the PISA tests worsened year after year. Moreover, the education level of 15-year-old adolescents was below the minimum accepted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the organization that performs these tests.

The current Uruguayan President, José Mujica (2010-2015), has also substantially increased the money assigned to government education, obtaining the same awful results as his predecessor. In the 2012 PISA test, our country had its worst performance of the four times it has participated. That year shows a marked deterioration in all the relevant areas evaluated, when compared to 2003, 2006, and 2009.

The thesis that the quality of education is determined by money and governmental management also prevails in the United States. There is an ingrained belief that the more money is injected into the system and the more directives are dictated from above, the better the education results will be. That line of thinking was the basis for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. Since then, billions of taxpayer dollars have flowed into the program, without achieving any significant education improvement. The failure of the program is so obvious, that there is talk among all political persuasions about dismantling it.

These cases allow us to reach several conclusions. One is that arbitrarily raising taxes to finance projects that have proved ineffective weakens the ability of each family or individual to choose their preferred form of education. Obviously, the more money the politicians draw from citizens, the fewer resources the latter will have to make their own decisions. Therefore, this increases the power of the ruling elite and organized pressure groups, and correspondingly, decreases it for the average person. Ergo, the weakening of democracy ensues.

Another pernicious effect is that government intervention brings about the politicization of education; it becomes an ideological battle. That is, with the excuse of “quality control,” government centralizes the decisions on which authors and approaches will be taught, and which will be implicitly banned. Experience provides abundant proof for this assertion.

The last is especially true for the teaching of history, a field that is particularly vulnerable to ideological manipulation. All authoritarian forms of government are aware of what George Orwell said: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The reality is that, fundamentally, education is a service like any other. Therefore, the only way to lower costs and raise quality is through a competitive, free, and decentralized “trial and error” process.

A process in which the decision makers — in order of importance — are the students, parents, schools, and teachers would ensure educational spaces where those involved could freely express all views, visions, and learning methods, and it would allow for the study of a wide variety of authors. Contrary to the prevailing, top-down approach, education should be characterized by diversity, in the broadest sense of the term.

Autonomy and decentralization will not only improve the quality of education, but also that of democracy itself.

Translated by Alan Furth.

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