Put Public Education Out Of Its Misery Already

Put Public Education Out Of Its Misery Already

We cannot improve our kids’ education together.
Erik Lidström
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Wouldn’t it be great if we could implement some grand scheme to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, regardless of who their parents are, get a good education?

Those who oppose Common Core, or Race to the Top, or No Child Left Behind are often nevertheless convinced that government should carry out some other kind of school reform, possibly under the auspices of the individual states. Lately, copying Finland has been a popular idea, although their government system is also beginning to crumble.

Many believe charter schools (public schools freed from many regulations) should be given more freedom and their numbers expanded. Some libertarians argue it is ethically wrong for the government to provide universal, “free,” and compulsory education, and that education should be left to the parents. But libertarians may also feel the positive ring that “providing all children with a high-quality education” has to it.

In my forthcoming book, “Education Unchained: What it takes to restore schools and learning,” I take a different approach to the role of government in education. I demonstrate that we simply cannot reform the education of “our” children “together.” The good thing is, we could easily make changes that, within a few years, would provide virtually all children with a kind of education superior to anything that has come before. But we simply cannot do it “together.”

Government Isn’t the Answer—We Are

In fact, almost no matter what kind of government reform we carry out, the quality of education in the United States, Britain, or my native Sweden will at best remain in its current abysmal state. But most commonly the net outcome of a government reform will be that education quality deteriorates even further. Despite their enthusiasm and good will, charter schools and home schoolers today constitute not even halfway houses towards reform. They are more like a tenth of a way towards it, even though in the future both groups may become the sources of great education.

Despite their enthusiasm and good will, charter schools and home schoolers today constitute not even halfway houses towards reform.

We must snap out of it and look at education clearly. First of all, education is, or at least ought to be, the outcome we seek. Schools are, or rather should be, mere tools to provide children with education. For various reasons, though, we treat schools as if they are a goals in themselves, as if they are some kind of tribal initiation rite, a ritual everyone has to go through.

Secondly, a hidden assumption is that we “know” what good education is. No, we don’t. To begin with, we all have different ideas about what good education means. Even more importantly, we do not have a meter, an instrument in our brains that can measure quality. Instead, we measure quality by comparing things. A high-quality mobile phone from 2003 is a joke today. Few would buy a high-quality car from 1951. When the government provides us with education, identical for all, by definition we have nothing to directly compare with.

We treat schools as if they are a goals in themselves, as if they are some kind of tribal initiation rite.

We have also largely forgotten how good education used to be. In fact, just how bad schools are today, compared to the schools of old, is hard for most of us to fathom. In my book, I estimate we have lost about six years of education over twelve years for academically minded pupils, compared to the government systems of, say, Sweden in 1878 or 1968. This means for practically minded pupils the fall in quality is more than 100 percent. For these children, schools today destroy value.

Thirdly, we treat education as if the laws of nature somehow do not apply. We improve, in any area of life, only to a small degree through rational thinking, because once we have thought long and hard about something, we must put it to the test. In a modern society, this happens in the marketplace. Often, or usually, it turns out that we were wrong, or that someone else had better ideas, and it is back to the drawing board.

The only way we truly progress, or even manage to preserve what we have, is through unchained trial and error. It is important to realize how crucial failure is. Lack of failure blocks innovation like a clogged drain. Competition should sweep away failing schools within weeks.

Government Ruins Education, Like It Ruins Most Things

Thus, to improve education we must liberate it. Government should have no, or hardly any part in financing education, determining curricula or diplomas, or oversight of education. In short, I propose a “free system of education” where parents pay, without any or hardly any government involvement.

In the nineteenth century, governments copied, homogenized, and systematized school systems that the private sector had already invented and evolved.

There are some common objections to this. Before we get to some of them, I want to briefly discuss the fact that schools used to be better and cost a lot less. So from where did that higher-quality, lower-cost education come?

Governments cannot invent something as complex as an education system out of thin air. In the nineteenth century, governments copied, homogenized, and systematized school systems that the private sector had already invented and evolved. Furthermore, governments at the time could make schooling universal, “free,” and compulsory because, for decades, most parents had already been voluntarily sending their children to schools.

Again, we treat education as if the laws of nature do not apply. Imagine what would have happened if the government in 1870 had taken over the production of running shoes. It would produce identical running shoes that “everyone” has the right to get “for free” because “one should not make money off running shoes.” Today, these running shoes would probably resemble East-German army boots. “Charter shoes” would be available with differently colored laces and maybe insoles.

Had the government in 1842 set out to provide everyone with “free hamburgers,” today they might cost taxpayers $30 each. They might be vegetarian and most likely without salt. The bread would be of the full-grain variety that is so hard that one could use it as a weapon. The local Diner-Cook Associations and Hamburger Boards would discuss skimmed versus half-fat milk, and whether the carrots (no fries!) should be peeled.

Education Should Be Way Cheaper

One objection to a free system of education is that not all parents can afford it. But education is one of the least costly businesses there is to enter. Almost all you need to create a school is a teacher, a large room, and some area to play outside during breaks, such as a schoolyard, a garden, a public park. The cost of education in the United States was $11,109 per student per year in 2009 for the first six years. For years seven through twelve, it was $12,550. Often only half of this money reaches the school, and only one-third the classroom. The monthly cost for younger children is thus about $925, twelve months per year, out of which just over $300 might reach the classroom.

Almost all you need to create a school is a teacher, a large room, and some area to play outside during breaks.

If you instead charge $300 per month per child, and teach 25 children, you would take in $90,000 a year. This should be sufficient, as the U.S. average salary of a teacher was $56,383 in 2012-2013. As a teacher, you would have no administration looking over your shoulder. Instead, 25 pairs of vigilant, fee-paying parents would scrutinize your teaching.

A free system like this would leave room for large tax cuts, since taxpayer money is no longer spent on education. Poor people would therefore have more money to spend.

But what about those who still cannot afford to pay? Today, millions of children in the slums of the Third World go to high-quality private schools that typically cost 5-10 percent of the local minimum wage. Those who cannot pay because their parents are destitute or because they are orphans are taught for free, or at a reduced rate. The same applied in nineteenth-century Britain. It is hard to see why Americans today would be less charitable.

This Would Reduce, Not Increase, Child Neglect

But what about those parents who do not care about their children’s education? First of all, these parents are not that many. Secondly, there would be no bad schools to choose from as deteriorating schools go bankrupt within months. In a free system, if you discover that your child still can’t read after three months in school, you put your child in another one.

School reform in a free system takes place at a pace that is tens of thousands of times faster than in a government system.

If your child is bullied, if he is disciplined for eating his sandwich into a particular shape, if she still can’t read, write, and speak French after six months, if the school decides to ban playing tag in the schoolyard, you do not create a Facebook page, and you do not appeal to the school board. Instead, you first talk to the school, and if it does not mend its ways, you fire the school. Within a week or two, your child goes to a different one. If you find a better school, you move your child. This means school reform in a free system takes place at a pace that is tens of thousands of times faster than in a government system.

Finally, perhaps we should consider it child neglect if a 12-year-old does not possess certain skills, such as basic arithmetic or being able to read a 200-page book, write a short essay, and answer a civics quiz. These are simple demands. But if they were applied today, the politicians and bureaucrats who are responsible for schools would almost all be locked up in prison.

We must compare what I propose with reality, not with some perfect fantasy world. Today, the reality is, for example, that 47 percent of adults in Detroit, some 200,000 people, are functionally illiterate. Half of them have high school degrees.

Of course, there is quite a bit more to the argument than this, and a free education system would not be perfect—there is no such thing in human affairs. Not everyone would get a good education, either, but far fewer would be poorly educated than in a government system, and we would still be able to help them through voluntary efforts.

Erik Lidström is the author of "Education Unchained," out this month from Rowman and Littlefield. He holds an MSc and a PhD in physics from Uppsala University, as well as an MBA from the Open University.

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