One argument often raised for moving toward privatization of K-12 education is that massive increases in real-dollar spending per pupil over the past forty years don’t seem to have done much for pupil performance
Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber points up one important countervailing force: the loss of the massive implicit subsidy to K-12 education from denying well-educated women other career opportunities. The people who could be doing a better job of teaching our kids than the current crop of K-12 teachers are practicing law instead.
In the U.S., the civil rights revolution deprived the schools of a another captive group of superb teachers: those who previously couldn’t get other professional-class jobs due to their race.
Another similar effect was the passing of the Depression generation. If you graduated from college in 1935, schoolteaching, with its guaranteed salary, looked like a great profession. (Mr. Bernhardt, who taught me trig and calculus, worked on the side as a consulting mathematician to one of the aerospace companies.) Those folks mostly retired around 1970, by which time smart college graduates had much better options.
Add all of this to Baumol’s “cost disease” (the natural tendency of labor-intensive services with limited room for productivity gains to face rising relative prices) and it’s not hard to see why school budgets have had to run hard just to stay in place.
That’s not all that’s been going on, of course, and it’s no reason not to try hard to do better. Indeed, it strongly suggests that the teacher-standing-in-front-of-the-classroom model is doomed, and we’re going to have take a serious crack at applying videogame technology to instruction. But the notion that we’ve been pouring more and more money into our public schools and not getting much for it can’t be taken at face value. The real-dollar cost of K-12 education at any given quality level is irreversibly higher now than it was forty years ago. If we want high-quality teachers, we’re going to have to pay them real money.