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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

 

Week 3: School Reform

The question: What in school changes need to me made to our educational system?

The answer is simple. We need to get the government out of the business of educating our children. I could go on and on berating the government for its terrible handling of education, but the problems are obvious. There are certainly those who would try to make the argument that without government-run schools poor children will not get an education. The answer to that contention is two-part.

First, we already know that children in poor sections of town get, on average, an inferior education to those in more affluent neighborhoods. This is a function both of local resources and social matters. Whether schools are run by the government or private organizations, local resources will be what they are. Currently, tax dollars do come from outside of a local school district to help out, but they are either insufficient or being squandered. More on that later. With respect to social matters, the most pressing is the structure of the family. Without painting with too broad a brush, the family structure in the inner city (primarily black families) is in an abysmal state relative to other racial/social groups with nearly 70% of children being born out of wedlock. Until that changes it’s going to be very difficult to effect positive changes in any aspect of life, including education.

That being said, there are steps that we can take to improve the educational situation…which brings me to the second part of my answer. As I mentioned above, the argument in favor of government-run schools is that everyone gets an education. But let me ask you which is worse, getting absolutely no education and knowing that you got absolutely no education or getting essentially no education (i.e., you can’t read after graduating from high school) while being convinced that you got an education? I think that former is far better for a simple reason. It is simply easier to identify the problem. If everyone could see that inner city children were not being provided any education at all, then we could perhaps doing something about it. On the other hand, the current situation of sub-sub-sub-par education is that we can say, at least they’re getting an education, which is a lie, but one that is all too easy to swallow. The only way to fix the situation is to rock the boat. We must remove government from the classroom. While it is tempting to suggest all sorts of reforms we must remember who got us here in the first place and realize that huge bureaucracies are nearly impossible to change in significant ways.

Aside from the typical bureaucratic problems with government-run schools, there is a more basic reason why they cannot work. Well, perhaps they can work (here I sit), but they cannot work as well as a private system. The reason is that the purpose of the government-run school system is educate children…but there is no way to make them do it. Add to that the fact that the teachers’ union's reason for existing is to keep teachers employed (as opposed to educating children) and you have a recipe for disaster.

A privately run school system, on the other hand, would incorporate all the aspects of a free-market system…both the good and the ‘bad.’ First the good: competition. Assuming that parents actually care about their children’s education (which is a social issue outside education reform’s sphere of influence), schools will either sink or swim based on the quality of the education they provide. That means that the purpose of these schools is to educate children. If a teacher is not performing, s/he is fired and replaced with a more effect individual. This would be a huge improvement over the current system focused on keep teachers happy regardless of student performance.

Now on to the ‘bad.’ I say ‘bad’ for a reason that I hope will become clear as we move long. One aspect of a free-market system is inevitable failure. This failure is necessary to keep a market running efficiently. Failure is accepted as a matter of course when speaking about small businesses (as we know, nearly 60% of them fail), but people recoil at the idea of failure in education because we’re supposed to be protecting The ChildrenTM.

Let’s take a quick look at failure in education. We all know that currently it takes quite a bit to expel a student. There has to be a long-running history of extreme behavior problems recalcitrant to adjustment measures before s/he is removed from school permanently. In the meantime, that expulsion-deserving student is typically causing disruptions in class, acting as bully outside of class, etc. Our first societal instinct these days is to see that child as a victim of his/her environment and not responsible for his/her actions (until s/he turns 18…then all bets are off). Therefore, we reason, we cannot deprive him/her of an education. Of course, in a privately run school (where there is competition for good students) such a troublemaker would be tossed out as a matter of course. This is one of the ‘bad’ consequences envisioned by adversaries of school choice etc. Such situations are a societal gut check. Whom do we care about more; the good kids being deprived of learning time or bad kids causing the deprivation? The answer will greatly effect the outcome of the debate.

Finally, one of the most common objections brought to bear against a completely private education model is that there will not be equal access to education. Since it’s obvious that this is already the case, I don’t quite see how this is an issue. However, do we believe that things would get worse or better by kicking government out of the classroom entirely? Well, let’s see. Americans have found a way to make money at just about everything imaginable. Why not education? Do you honestly believe that there are not individuals out there with the ability to run a school for a profit? Are there no people who grew up in the inner city, made a bundle of money and might be willing to invest in a school…especially if they see a total lack of educational opportunities otherwise?

What it all comes down to is individualism and capitalism. To maul one of my favorite Churchill quotes: Capitalism is the worst economic system…except all the other ones that have been tried. Inject competition and individual accountability into anything and watch people and intuitions flourish. There will surely be some left behind…but is that any worse than what we’re currently doing: leaving everyone behind.

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