The Manhattan Institute’s Marcus A. Winters says, “We can improve education without busting the budget.”

Since 1975 average per-student spending has doubled to nearly $13,000 in real, inflation-adjusted terms. Many of the country's largest school districts spend twice that amount.  Meanwhile, student achievement has flat-lined.

Winters explores how to improve schools and student outcomes in a recent City Journal article. First he looks at private and charter school spending and student achievement. He shows that spending at those kinds of schools is less but students are doing better—and teachers are the key.

Specifically, private and charter schools have much more autonomy to hire the best and fire the rest. This is critical since quality teachers are the leading in-school factor influencing student achievement. Since teacher salaries represent about half of o school’s budget, says Winters, keeping mediocre ones on salary is a real budget-buster. As he concludes:

Schools don’t need more funds; they need the freedom to use their funds as they see best. That can happen only if the restrictions of the current system no longer bind them. A better system—one that the United States should begin moving toward—would be a taxpayer-funded one of relatively autonomous schools. Every school would become, in effect, a charter school. Districts would still have a role in this kind of system, imposing performance standards that schools would have to meet to keep their doors open. But it would be each school’s responsibility to adopt sound policies and use its resources wisely.

An even more localized approach would be allowing public dollars to follow students to the schools with the teachers of the parents’ choice. Successful teachers could command the salaries and respect they deserve, earn the respect they deserve, schools would have powerful incentives to budget sensibly, ineffective teachers would not be kept on for long, and schools of education would have to get a lot tougher about admissions or other teacher preparation providers would predominate.