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.