We recently learned that six out of ten schools in Quebec were in bad shape. In response, the government announced it would provide new funds to improve the situation. It’s an old song: we always try to improve school results by spending more.
But that only obscures a central question, namely how resources are used. Indeed, by reducing the activities of the Department of Education, by ensuring that funds are allocated to students, and by increasing school autonomy, Quebec could improve cognitive and non-cognitive benefits for students while reducing government spending Education.
Many empirical studies find a weak correlation between the amount injected and academic outcomes. For example, according to data from Quebec, PISA math test results appear to have stagnated (-1.5%) since 2006, while expenditure per student has increased significantly (+18%).
But then what works? As the literature clearly shows, systems that decentralize management to the local level, provide choices and exit routes for parents, and local participation mechanisms (e.g. participation in school associations) appeal to us. Typically, in these systems, the state is not involved in service delivery and focuses only on funding, which is guided by parental decisions.
This is quite logical for several reasons. First, a one-size-fits-all policy tends to produce disappointing outcomes in heterogeneous populations. Second, parents tend to play a larger role in decentralized systems, creating a positive feedback loop between the school administration and the local community. Third, parents have a way out when the allocation of funds is based on parental choice, which in turn creates a strong incentive for schools to offer quality personalization.
Cognitive and non-cognitive benefits
This personalization offers significant benefits that can be broken down into two categories: cognitive (test scores) and non-cognitive benefits.
When it comes to cognitive outcomes, the literature is pretty strong based on randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The majority of RCTs examining greater parental choice clearly show a positive correlation with these results.
However, these do not account for the lion’s share of the benefits of parent choice and school autonomy. For parents, education is not just about the results of standardized tests. They also care about the social environment in which their children are raised and the mental well-being it provides them.
The literature indicates a strong correlation between parental decisions about education and improved student mental health. A recent study of US teenagers ages 15 to 19 correlated school choice with a 10% decrease in suicide rates, in addition to other similar positive effects.
The problem of bullying is probably the one that best illustrates the importance of these side effects. Being bullied between the ages of 13 and 16 dramatically reduces educational attainment and income by age 25. Since school choice seems to encourage schools to address bullying, significant long-term positive effects can be observed.
Everyone will agree: it is important to improve all outcomes for children and education policy has a crucial role to play in this respect. However, it would be illusory to think that these improvements will come only from increased government spending on education, since how the money is spent is more important than how much it is spent.
Most of the empirical literature in the field of economics of education suggests that measures to increase parental choice and school autonomy pave the way for better use of resources. The only question that remains is how the principles of school choice and school autonomy can be adapted to the particular situation of Quebec in the interest of parents and students in the province.
Vincent Geloso, Assistant Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Economist at the Montreal Economic Institute.