Thursday, December 21, 2006

Education: Don't Abolish It, Liberate It

Here's five news stories from the past week or two that touch on education. Each of them has a role to play in what I'm about to say, so take a bit and read 'em all, if you'd be so kind:

Commission: Overhaul School System
Small Schools Fade Away
Georgia School District Abandons Anti-Evolution Sticker Case
Autism Fuels Call for School Vouchers
Charter Schools No Threat to Public Schools

A large number of Libertarians- probably a majority- want to privatize or outright abolish the tax-funded public schools in the United States. They argue that the public school system is intended as a Communist plot to indoctrinate students into supporting big government; that private schools are vastly more efficient and effective educators; that taxation is immoral; and that government control of education is unconstitutional.

I am of the opposing opinion- that there is a role in education for government. My main reason for bias is that, without public schools, I would not have been educated. My parents, both being poor working people, neither having finished high school, were in no position to homeschool me or to send me to private schools- especially since all private schools closer than Houston were religion-based. My only hope for learning would have been the Sunday school at the local church, which focused solely on religious indoctrination.

School privatization advocates claim that, without the public school monopoly, private corporations would create schools for people like me, and that "responsible" parents would work harder and find the money. Leaving aside the fact that people can work themselves to death and still end up with nothing to show for it, there are many places- especially rural areas like where I live now- where no for-profit corporation would ever dream of opening a school. Even in cases where corporations would open a school, the experiment with corporate operation of public schools in Philadelphia and other places by Edison Schools has shown at best mixed results, at worst outright profit-taking with zero improvement in school performance.

Furthermore, the free market argument here ignores a key point: you cannot have universal ANYTHING without government intervention. If education is totally privatized, and a free education guaranteed to no one, there will be quite a few children who grow up pig-ignorant of everything- regardless of their own talent or desire to learn. To privatization advocates, this is just fine- those who can't afford the sacrifices necessary for an education don't deserve it, and should be out-competed by the better off. Unfortunately, this "the hell with you, I got mine" attitude is all too pervasive among the anarchists and purists of the Libertarian Party, who don't realize just how much it repels potential supporters.

Universal education is not a luxury. Today it is absolutely essential. Even Thomas Jefferson, who probably would be appalled at the vast tax-funded education system of today, said that an educated public was indispensable to the preservation of democracy. Our economy relies on not just basic skills like literacy and mathematical skills, but much more complex concepts in science, civics, language, and culture- concepts which must be available to the entire population. Without the general spread of knowledge, America loses ground to other nations and eventually becomes unable to support itself in the modern world economy.

The problem, unfortunately, is that this is already happening. The public school system is turning out students whose sole bank of knowledge is how to "game" a multiple-choice test. Teacher unions demand tenure for incompetent teachers and fight with almost universal success to prevent accountability for lack of skill in teaching. Government bureaucrats and elected officials use education as both a political football and a bottomless well of cash, proposing solutions which create new government jobs and increase the cost of education without increasing education itself. The system is not merely broken: the broken parts of the system are self-perpetuating, resisting any efforts by the public to reform it.

This leaves us with a dilemma: if public schools fail to do their job, and are yet necessary to preserve the American standard of living, what can be done? Throwing more money at the problem- the usual Republican and Democrat answer- won't work. That merely feeds the bureaucrats and the teacher unions. As it is, the United States already spends massively more per student than most other countries in the world- as reported by both the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institutte and the liberal news outlet USA Today. Updated information from the source- the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development- says that in a 2005 study of thirty developed nations the United States averaged $7,560 per primary school student (ranking third behind Luxembourg and Denmark) and $8,779 per secondary school student (ranking third again, behind Luxembourg and Switzerland), yet runs at best middle of the pack in basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. The same study says that, conflating all education, public, private, kindergarten through college, the United States spends 7.34% of its total gross domestic product- that's 7.34% of the total wealth produced in the country each year- on education... ranking only behind Korea, which spends 8.2% of its GDP. (Luxembourg, by the way, spends only 3.64% of its GDP on education.)

So we, as a nation, spend more money per capita than almost anyone else on learning and turn out inferior product... which means that, whatever the solution might be, more money isn't it.

Nor is the solution gimmicks such as high-stakes testing (already a proven failure) or small class sizes. (In fact Korea's education performance soared when they enlarged their class sizes. Two of the best-performing nations- Finland and Singapore- have class sizes of forty to sixty students per classroom, double and triple the federal US mandate of 21.)

Nor will the solution be found in "accountability." The problem with enforced accountability in public schools is that it is essentially a political struggle- one political bloc fighting another for superiority. In this case the national teacher unions have proven without exception the stronger, and their constant effort is to ensure teacher employment regardless of performance. So long as the unions continue to defend the worst among their membership, government mandated accountability will be impossible.

There is one solution which has not been tried yet in the USA, although it is common practice in European nations, especially Germany: choice.

I don't mean vouchers for private schools: I mean choice in public schools.

The European system works this way: parents choose which school their children will attend. That school gets that child's share of the tax funding for education. No school can turn away a student, nor can any school prevent a student from leaving. Schools have to compete in an open market for students- which means spending money efficiently and getting rid of incompetent administrators and teachers.

Think how this would work in the United States. Yes, there might be segregation problems as bigots of all races seek out schools where their own race is dominant. However, such efforts will be futile in the long term, as those schools will have no power to block influxes of new students regardless of race. Only poor performing schools will be able to retain racial purity... and that would be at the cost of the vast majority of their student base, because most parents place quality of education above race issues.

Given school choice, a parent could choose from many educational models, including this proposed radical change or the traditional system.

Given school choice, small rural schools such as these in Kansas, Nebraska and Montana would have the opportunity to justify their existence through superior service- either convenience or educational performance- or else be eliminated for cost efficiency.

Given school choice, parents could choose between schools which teach evolution and schools which teach religious doctrine disguised as creation science.

Finally, choice in public schools would open the door for the ability to take tax money to private schools- eliminating the need for special exemptions for the disabled and semi-public, regulation-crippled "charter schools".

There are many other things which can be done to improve education- such as the total abolition of federal education meddling, wasteful spending on education and decentralization of school controls, and deregulation of curricula and truancy laws for private schools and home schools. The largest problem, though, is that the public school system is unaccountable to the people and has no incentive for improvement. The only effective way to accomplish this is to restore the power of choice to the parents, thereby forcing schools to shape up or ship out. Public school choice retains guaranteed universal education while giving parents the power to control their children's education...

... and most attractively to Libertarians, it will almost certainly lead to reductions in school spending over the long term. Private schools spend half as much on average as public schools per student, yet produce much better educated students. In a competitive market, even a market with a heavy government subsidy, efficiency in spending is a selling point... and with parents able to choose their student's school, no school will be able to afford the luxuries of inefficiency and incompetence.


omorka said...

The obvious problem with both the argument and the proposed solution is transportation. The biggest single reason private school per-student spending is lower than public schools is the cost, not of standardized testing (expensive a boondoggle though that is) or the teacher's unions (some private school teachers are members of my union, too), but of school busses and bus drivers. In fact, any bussing at all is purely optional on the part of a private school. Public schools don't have that option. And in any school choice program (which, by the way, many school districts already have, although the principal has the authority to turn away students from a full school), one has to decide how those kids are going to get there. Either the costs of transportation skyrocket, as now a bus for every single school must go through every single neighborhood in the district, or the district makes dropping those kids off and picking them up the responsibility of a parent, which makes it an empty choice for parents who both work until 5, much more single parents who work until 8 pm.

Kris Overstreet said...

Transportation is an issue, true, but it can be solved. Costs would have to be limited by some sort of district lines, and these would have to be set district by district. Each district would solve the problem in the way it sees fit... and parents who disagree would take their children, and tax funding, elsewhere.

Celine said...

A few comments:

1) If no public school can turn away any student for any reason, what does this do to magnet schools based on ability (academic or otherwise)? Every year, HSPVA turns away bunches of kids who have never studied visual or performing arts in their lives, but whose parents want their kids in the school because of its academic performance record. If they HAD to take in all those students, they'd quickly be overwhelmed and out of space... and that academic reputation would plummet. The same would happen to any school with an exceptional reputation under your system.

2) Each district would solve the problem in the way it sees fit... and parents who disagree would take their children, and tax funding, elsewhere.

Um, how? This is the second most common example of the Libertarian "I got mine, fuck you" attitude -- "If you don't like it where you are, then move." What if they CAN'T move, for reasons relating to the parents' job situation, finances, or other things? And as soon as you have districts at all, you can't avoid some of the problems of the current school districts.

YOU desperately need to move, right this very minute; there is not a single problem with your living or working situation that wouldn't be substantially eased if you weren't living out in the pimple on the armpit of the Back Of Beyond. Does it do a damn bit of good for me, or anyone else, to tell you this over and over again? Your response is, "But I can't," for reasons which seem clear and obvious to you but make little sense to us. Is your situation so different from that of a parent who has to hold down a job, then?

3) What about people like my old friend Z, whose father wanted him to drop out of school as soon as he was old enough, even though he wanted to go on and get a college education? (Something he was never able to do, for various reasons only partly related to that). His father would surely never have sent him to anything but the cheapest available alternative, shitty education or not. Should the children be punished for the sins of the parents? If not, at what age should they have a say in where they go... and what if, as a result of their parents' previous decisions, they no longer have the skills to get in?

3) It's not enough to handwave away a serious, costly problem like the transportation issue with "Oh, that can be solved" and "Each district will solve that problem as it sees fit." This is a HUGE, glaring flaw in your proposal, and you haven't given even rudimentary thought to addressing it; you just expect it to disappear, like magic, via the Miracle of the Free Market. Reality check time: the free market doesn't work the way Libertarians think it does.

KMacK said...

Transportation is a non-starter with this proposed system; with schools competing for students, the school in question will either find a way to transport the students, or perhaps, for distances of not more than say, one and one half miles, let the children walk to school. I did, all it did for me was keep me in shape.
Perhaps schools could contract with the public transportation systems to provide tranasport with the presentation of a school I.D. card.
One thing that is missing from this proposal is discipline. Children need it to grow. Discipline is not just "having a time out"; it's learning that everything has a price, usually charged up front; and what you get out of an education is what you, as a student, put into it. If the Liberals have outlawed the most effective form of discipline, there is still working after school, cleaning, sweeping, doing things that need doing, and doing it to "pay back" the school for the trouble the student caused.
Responsibility is a big lesson that isn't being taught today; rather the lesson is in how to blame others, and avoid any personal responsibility for your actions.
We do have more people in prison than any other industrialized country...and the lack of that lesson in school is largely to blame. Once you're an adult, you can't say it's not your fault; at least, not very effectively.
I can see Kris's idea is a good one, and even more than he has suggested: WHy not schools that teach the legal minimum in the standard courses, and concentrate on specifics, like Science, Art, Theatre...there are a few districts that have this system of "Magnet" schools, and these schools produce a large number of well trained people in the specialized subjects they teach. Students want to get in, and there is usually a long waiting list: this is interesting: students wanting to go to school, where they can learn what they are strongest in as a profession.
And, to close, why not restart the "Trade Schools" we used to have? They worked, and the students usually had jobs waiting for them when they graduated.
Unlike today...

Kris Overstreet said...

Celine, point by point:

1) The only way to cure the underperforming schools issue is to give at least -some- of the kids an opportunity to get OUT of them. A school which has prerequisite studies for admission had better offer those studies itself- otherwise those prerequisites are nothing more than a sign saying, "Your Kind Not Allowed."

A school overloaded with students will have the tax money to expand. A school which underperforms due to overcrowding- and I don't think that's automatic- will very soon no longer be overcrowded. Parents who don't want overcrowding or who want smaller class sizes will move their students elsewhere, reducing burden. Schools that bleed students will be forced make changes or hand over operations to new leadership. The short-term pain will produce a better performing system over the long run.

2) In my ideal world, district lines would only apply for transportation purposes- "if you live here, we'll send a bus out, otherwise get your own ride." Those who cannot get transportation to any other school are, at worst, in the same situation they are in now. They lose nothing, except perhaps some classmates, and before long any loser school they go to will be forced to make serious and fundamental changes to correct their problems- which means those stuck in one place still benefit.

3) I'm not proposing public schools charge tuition. Every public school would get the same per capita amount of funding, and parents who home school or who force their kids to drop out don't get any money. (I'm still undecided on private-school vouchers on church-state grounds.)

As for Z's particular case, he has an asshole for a father... but I don't see a solution there aside from taking all children away from all parents and handing them over to government to raise. There can only be one final word on who has the authority and responsibility to raise a child, and I trust 90% of parents to get it right more than I trust a single government authority to get it even 10% right.

Finally, my own living arrangements aren't really proper for this blog, especially considering I'm not sending any kids to school any time soon.

Son of 3) What am I supposed to do- invent a Department of Child Busing and micromanage the route for every child in America? I -have- given transportation serious thought... and the best solution is to let the schools work it out for themselves. That working out would probably include set bus service districts for each school system, with expansion or overlap where schools compete directly for students. In fact, bus service- and bus safety, and bus travel time, and other transportation factors- would be key competition points between schools seeking students.

omorka said...

A school which has prerequisite studies for admission had better offer those studies itself- otherwise those prerequisites are nothing more than a sign saying, "Your Kind Not Allowed."

Um, as read that's an argument eating its own tail - you have to get in to take the courses, but you have to take the courses to get in?

But, trying to reply to the intent rather than the form - so, no governor's academies. No serious magnet programs at all, or at least none that call for anything beyond the basic-basics. No HSPVA (not all elementray schools have music, dance, or theater programs, and some don't have visual arts) or any other PVA school. This is supposed to improve education and increase parent and student choice?

A school overloaded with students will have the tax money to expand

There are many, many possible obstacles to a school expanding other than money, the most obvious being available space. Let me offer the example of the school I currently teach at: it has a very high academic reputation for a zone school in HISD, partly because of its magnet program and partly because of the IB program. As a result, it's packed - it has its usual zoned students, the students who applied under the magnet program, and non-magnet students who applied to transfer there for the IB program. There are just under 3400 students in a building meant for 1800. It's also not hurting for cash; it's one of the oldest high schools in Houston, and thus has a substantial alumni population, some of whom struck it rich back in the old oil boom and have remembered the school kindly. It is, however, on half a city block in the middle of Houston. There is no room on any side to expand; there are churches on two sides, businesses on the third, and a private school on the fourth. If we were not allowed to turn away transfer applicants (which, regretfully, we have to, taking the earliest applicants first until we run out of space), we would not be able to fit all the kids in the building. The only things we could do to expand are eat our parking lot, which still wouldn't give us enough room and would cause obvious logistical problems of its own, or worse, tear the whole school down and build a taller one. The same is true for a number of high-performing schools in urban areas, both in and outside of HISD.

Parents who don't want overcrowding or who want smaller class sizes will move their students elsewhere, reducing burden.

My experience in overcrowded schools leads me to expect that what parents will actually do in that situation is complain mightily to the school about the overcrowding, stressing out that administration and causing them to be ugly to the teachers (since the overcrowding isn't something they have any control over); meanwhile, they will continue to send their kid there, because obviously their one kid isn't causing the overcrowding - it's all those other kids. Not-My-Kid-Syndrome is a powerful force in education, and not just in the arena of discipline.

George Phillies said...

For a Libertarian point of view on what we should do to improve the education of our children and grandchildren:

gives part 1 of my proposals.

George Phillies