I oppose free-market fundamentalism on every front, but when it comes public education, I find myself nodding in partial agreement with John Hood. Despite his extremism on many issues, he is an increasingly articulate spokesperson on the need for "competition" in public schools. I don't know if he's toned down his over-heated rhetoric on the issue - or perhaps I'm drifting in his direction - but his column today addresses many of my own long-standing concerns. Naturally, there is much that I don't agree with, including his grounding premise:
For me, debates about parental choice and school reform come down to productivity. I don’t doubt the good intentions and efforts of most public-school leaders and educators (growing up as the child of two public-school employees may well explain my predilections here). And I have long favored a governmental role in ensuring that all children have access to educational opportunities (though this does not mean that governments must operate schools, only that taxpayers will fund many of them).
For me, the issue is not productivity, but excellence and innovation. Based on the rest of his column, Hood probably agrees with me, but by taking the "productivity" stand, he invokes the Free Market Gods in ways that are, well, not productive.
But after a shaky start, he nails the crux of the issue:
But monopolies cost too much and deliver too little. Education is no exception to the rule. Despite America’s overall devotion to free enterprise and individual choice, we have one of the most privileged government education monopolies in the developed world. The result is mediocre performance on international tests of student achievement from U.S. public schools that cost more in real terms than those of virtually every other country on the planet.
The "monopoly" problem applies to all aspects of culture, including power generation, journalism, politics, and more - and I wish John would take on some of those other sacred cows. But our topic today is public education, so let's stay focused.
For the record, I am good friends with many teachers in public schools. They are, to a person, dedicated and inspiring educators who work incredibly hard under unimaginably difficult circumstances. Policy makers and administrators at state and federal levels have made their lives hell. Toiling in gigantic factory schools that often place as much emphasis on football as physics, they are powerless to innovate and forced far too often to teach to the test instead of to the student.
John goes on from there to talk about his own kids, who, like my daughter, attend a private school. In our case, special needs drove our decision. But whatever the motivation, it's clear many families would like alternatives to large-scale institutions.
What to do in the face of such "market demand" is up for debate. Predictably, the Free Market Fundamentalists drink their kool-aid, smack their lips, and declare all would be right if we just open the floodgates of charter schools. That, in my opinion, is a recipe for disaster.
My own approach would be to break up the Department of Public Instruction by establishing a handful of Intrapreneuring Initiatives. My priorities for these initiatives would be a Small Schools Initiative, a Charter Schools Initiative, and Non-College Track Curriculum. I'll write more on those later, but the bottom line is to allow our best and brightest educators the freedom to operate in ways that foster excellence and innovation.
School choice won’t destroy public education. Based on domestic and international experience to date, aggressive choice programs involving charter, private, and home schools would likely reduce the government’s market share only modestly – from about 90 percent, to say, 60 percent to 70 percent. That would have dramatic and salutary effects, however, not just for the individual families making the choice but also for those who remain in a public system facing competition for dollars and status.
Education is critically important, and well worth spending big money on. But the current level of expenditure yields paltry returns on investment. Time to rebalance the portfolio.
Again, I agree in principle with the need to rebalance the portfolio. How we get there, however, is of much concern. While I support swift and radical restructuring in many areas of life, that is not my view when it comes to public education. I want the current public education establishment to have a shot at driving toward excellence and innovation, unfettered by idiotic mandates such as George Bush's No Child Left Behind program. Let's give our teachers permission to lead the way first.