Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Thoughts on Education

As someone who just graduated from a public high school, it may sound odd for me to say I am opposed to public education. And practically, I recognize that simply abandoning public education outright is not a politically viable possibility. But nevertheless, ideologically, I do not believe that anybody has a “right” to education, any more than they have a “right” to healthcare, or a house, or even food or water. Each of those things are necessities of life, but they are not rights. People must pay for them. They are not inherent at birth. They are not “unalienable”, which is the metric our Constitution uses to define rights. They do not come from our Creator, they require manpower, resources, and expertise to provide. So does education. For these reasons, I am opposed to the concept that the government may forcibly take money from some people in order to pay for someone else’s education. That is an encroachment on people’s rights to property to fund an unconstitutional government activity.

Our nation survived, in fact thrived, for the first 70 years of its existence with no public education system, and the public education system we have now hurts the poor most because it is a monopoly. I am convinced that any product is produced at the highest quality, at the fairest price accessible to the most amount of people when it is sold in a free market with competition. The product of education is no exception. A government monopoly on education eliminates that competition. Consumers of education (aka parents of students) have no choice in where their student goes to school, assuming they cannot afford private school. Poor people cannot afford private school because the government has restricted the supply, keeping prices high. Even worse, since most schools are funded by local property taxes, and poorer school districts have less property tax revenue, poorer people are automatically handicapped. This is part of the reason inner city schools are of such low quality, in addition to the cultural challenges faced in poorer areas (drugs, crime, lack of parental involvement, etc.). So not only are the poor stuck in a public school under our current system, they are stuck in a broke, ineffective, understaffed, and crime-ridden public school. And we wonder why inner-city dropout rates are so high.

The solution to this problem is not to just dump lots of money into these failing schools and hope they’ll turn around. We’ve tried that for decades, and it has failed. Per capita government spending on education has doubled since 1970, while test scores and most other measures of student achievement have remained utterly stagnant over that time. 

That's a damning graphic. There is no association between spending on education and student achievement. No matter how much of other people’s money we dump into public education, our kids are not being any better educated for it.

The real solution to this problem is school choice. If students can choose which school to go to, it will somewhat even out the disparity in opportunity between the rich and poor. Ideally, the ultimate choice is a free market, in which consumers could choose between several different schools each competing for their business. If all our nation’s public schools were privatized, private school tuition would be much more affordable for everyone, because the supply of private schools/educators would be much larger. Also, since private school teachers make much less than public school teachers, less money would be lost in overhead, and teachers would be paid whatever wage was fair for their value to the school; private schools wouldn’t be bound by tenure or all those other labor-union rules that public schools must obey. If the government returned all the money it takes from people to allow them to pay for their own education, people would be able to afford a private school. While it is true that some very poor people could not afford a school of the same quality that a rich person could, they’d be no worse off than they are now because competition would increase the quality of education for everyone. This is, in my opinion, the fairest and most effective way to educate the masses. But since that’s not happening anytime soon, I favor several more practical steps in the short term, including:

  • School voucher programs, charter schools, homeschooling, tax credits, and any other program which enhances school choice. In addition to the cost and quality control benefits I detailed above, choice has the benefit of allowing people to tailor their education to meet their needs. As author and University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene said in a recent interview, school choice “allows people to get the type of education they need for them. We're not all the same. We don't all have the same goals for what our education should be. Choice allows us to customize.”
  • Combat teachers unions in any way possible. Teachers unions are the greatest impediment to school choice, because it would cost them money and power. They wouldn’t have as much say in how things go down, and they would be stripped of their monopoly on the teaching market. Also, teachers would be paid according to the market, rather than according to inflated collective bargaining agreements made with a government that has no incentive to hold down taxpayer costs.
  • Teacher salaries should be determined by merit pay, rather than tenure, just like they are in every other business. It is the only way to hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students, and the only way to keep them accountable as they get older. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a teacher for 40 years, if you’re failing as an educator, you should be fired. At the very least, you shouldn’t be paid as much as a younger teacher who’s getting results. This is another element of school choice. As the brilliant Veronique de Rugy of Bloomsburg TV writes, "If reform is to be defined by something other than the amount of money flushed down the toilet, it is time to reverse the flow of power from the top (administrators, school districts, teachers unions, governments) to the bottom (students, their parents, and taxpayers who want their money spent wisely). A first step in that direction is to change our teacher labor market practices in terms of both hiring and firing. On the hiring end, there are too many restrictions on who can become a teacher. On the firing end, we need to restore the relationship between job retention and job performance." To those who say that this would cause teachers to give easier tests, I have two words: standardized testing. Kids don’t like it, but it’s necessary. Give them an incentive to do well. Once again, teachers unions are the largest impediment to this practice, because it means their members aren’t guaranteed inflated salaries regardless of performance into retirement. Boo hoo.
  • Stop shafting the high achieving students in an attempt to help pull up the low achieving students. Steve Chapman explains this trend in better detail here: As I said earlier, education is not a one-size fits all entity. It is okay for some students to do really, really well, and for others to do really, really poorly. That does not necessarily mean something is wrong with the school. Clustering together the successful students with the unsuccessful will not encourage the unsuccessful to do better, but it will limit the pace at which the successful can learn.
  • Repealing all compulsory attendance laws, so that the kids who don’t want to be there (or, rather, the kids whose parents don’t want them to be there) cannot impede those who do want to be there. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And you can force a kid to show up to school, but you can’t force him to learn. You can’t teach anybody anything unless they want to be taught. And in inner-city schools where there’s often over a 40% dropout rate, it would probably be a much better, safer learning environment for the other 60% to not have the dropouts around them from the get go. Besides, it’s unconstitutional for our government to force people to do things they don’t want to do. Freedom to do what you like includes the freedom to make bad decisions.
  • In the budget battles that are going on across the nation’s school boards right now, the answer almost universally is to cut spending, not raise taxes. As I showed above, there is no association between school funding and student achievement. John Stossel shows this better than I could here: The only variable which has been shown to impact student achievement is parental involvement in the child’s education. Loving, caring parents who reward success and do not tolerate failure, who instill a pride in academic accomplishments, provide the incentive a child needs to apply himself in school. If a student has that motivation, he will succeed, no matter how old his textbook is. And if a student does not have that desire to learn, he will not learn, no matter how well funded his extracurricular programs are.

School choice enables those families who care about learning, who take school seriously and cultivate willing and motivated students, to thrive. It allows those students to reach their full potential at a school of their choice, unencumbered by the cultural restrictions of their environment. And choice on an open market would allow all of this without footing the bill on taxpayers, whether they have children being educated or not. We’re not ready for that yet, but the closer we can get to it, the better.


  1. School choice does offer the promise of better educational opportunities, and greater autonomy over what sort of education a student receives.

    Unfortunately your analysis admits one very troubling issue: Students with less supportive parents are at an enormous disadvantage. Of course this is not an issue that is unique to school choice, but one the calls into question the very function of public education. Isn't the point of public education to educate everyone equally, regardless of socioeconomic status?

    If education is a free market, students with involved parents will ensure that their children receive the best education for the child. Children with less involved parents won't have that.

    To be honest, I don't think there's an institutional answer to that problem. Perhaps its up to individual teachers to ensure that all students apply themselves regardless of the students background

  2. "Isn't the point of public education to educate everyone equally, regardless of socioeconomic status?"

    To me, no. Perhaps it is in the current system, but I don't think it should be. If we maintain a public education system, the purpose should be to provide each family with an equal opportunity to educate their children; if they choose not to make the most of that opportunity, it's their loss (or rather, their childs loss). That's unfortunate for the kid, but no more so than the unintelligent kid who's born into a great family is unfortunate for his handicap. "All men are created equal" does not mean all people have the same intelligence, resources, parental involvement, work ethic, or other things which affect their success in school. No matter what system we have, some will become better educated than others because of those variables, and that's okay. Any government program aimed at "leveling the playing field", educational or otherwise, is in my opinion misguided.

  3. Actually, I agree with your response to my question.

    Perhaps I should have clarified that the education available should be equal, though the results of that availability will of course be unequal.

  4. Regardless of the logistics, isn't a well educated populace essential to a free, democratic society?

  5. Not technically. Now, I don't mean to understate the importance of education. I absolutely think education is desirable to a free democratic society, and worthwhile in a free democratic society. Perhaps it is essential to a society as we would like to imagine it. I think it is essential to a populace that makes the wisest decisions in election day. I think it is helpful to a prosperous society, and helpful to a society that is worldly and informed enough to peacefully interact with other societies. But it is not a prerequisite to either freedom or democracy. Again, for the first 70 to 80 years of the United States' existence, we had no public education system at all, and most people were not "well educated" as we today define it. Yet the US mostly prospered. They were educated enough to do the tasks their daily lives consisted of. They were much more educated than we are in things that concerned them; farming, for instance, or the trade/industry in which they were employed. People are motivated by incentive, and when they have an incentive to learn something, economic or otherwise, they learn it. A private education system enables unique individualized incentives to guide ones education path. You get what you pay for, and you pay for only what you want, so you don't have to pay (via taxes or otherwise) for education you don't want.