Connecticut is tied with Wisconsin for the top spot in a ranking of state education systems. That's the good news. The bad news is that they both received a score of 26 out of 100.
The Cato Education Market Index, released this month by the Cato Institute, rates states on the ease with which parents can choose between public and private schools, the freedom schools have to set their own policies, and the extent of competition between schools to attract and retain students.
Connecticut's relatively strong showing is partly due to its public schools. Though they're far from a competitive marketplace, they are somewhat less hamstrung by regulation than those of most other states, and offer relatively more choice to parents. Also helping Connecticut's score is that it has several thousand children in charter schools - public schools that are chosen by parents and freed from some regulations.
Where the state really stands out, though, is in its private education sector. Connecticut's private schools are among the freest in the nation. They do not have to hire state-certified teachers, for instance, which means they can employ whomever they deem best for the job. That freedom contrasts sharply with regular public schools, where teachers have to obtain degrees from state-accredited colleges of education - a requirement that has little effect on student achievement. Private schools are also more popular in Connecticut than in most other states, enrolling more than 11 percent of students.
But 11 percent is still a small number, and that leaves the vast majority of the state's children enrolled in public schools insulated from the market incentives that drive excellence and innovation in other parts of our economy.
Unfortunately, Connecticut families can't look forward to significant improvements in educational freedom or competitiveness any time soon. Even when we ignore the current enrollment numbers and look only at the state's education policies, its score remains virtually unchanged. That's because Connecticut has no open-ended school choice programs on its books. The state strictly limits the number of charter schools that can be created, shutting the door on significant growth in the charter sector.
So Connecticut doesn't have anything like a free market in education, and isn't going to any time soon. Does it matter?
It matters a great deal. The reason we developed the Cato Education Market Index is that competition and parental choice are associated with a range of important educational and social outcomes. A vast body of international research shows that private schools forced to compete for the privilege of serving each and every student are more academically effective and less costly to operate than state-run schools. That's particularly true when the schools are paid for, at least in part, directly by the families whose children attend them.
Free markets also encourage innovation and the dissemination of best practices, something that state monopoly school systems have difficulty doing. Remember Jaime Escalante, the Los Angeles public school teacher who led his low-income Hispanic students to stellar achievements on the advanced-placement calculus exams? He was essentially drummed out of the district because of his exacting standards, and because he chose to teach classes far larger than the maximum size set in the teachers union contract. In competitive education markets, school managers have a powerful economic incentive to identify and nurture brilliant teachers like Escalante.
Perhaps most important, free education markets allow families to obtain the sort of education they deem most appropriate for their children without forcing them into conflict with their neighbors. Should the school have a Christmas tree? Should students say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning? These decisions are much less controversial when students attend independent schools that are freely chosen by their parents. In our public school system, they are an endless source of often bitter conflict.
By implementing a system of school choice using education tax credits or school vouchers, Connecticut could easily bring its impressively free private education sector within reach of all families. And that would do a lot more for its citizens than simply raising its rating on our Education Market Index.
Andrew J. Coulson is director of education policy for the Cato Institute and author of the Cato Education Market Index.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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