Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Should the Government Get Out of the School Running Business?

Jonah Goldberg of the conservative magazine The National Review has an interesting op-ed in today's Los Angeles Times called "Do Away with Public Schools". He argues that private, parochial, and charter schools get better results than traditional public schools (I would add homeschooling and make the important clarification than charter schools *ARE* government schools). He writes:
"Americans want universal education, just as they want universally safe food. But nobody believes that the government should run 90% of the restaurants, farms and supermarkets. Why should it run 90% of the schools — particularly when it gets terrible results?"
Excellent question!
"There's a consensus in America that every child should get an education, but as David Gelernter noted recently in the Weekly Standard, there's no such consensus that public schools need to do the educating.

Really, what would be so terrible about government mandating that every kid has to go to school, and providing subsidies and oversight when necessary, but then getting out of the way?"
This is another thought-provoking question. I'm not convinced that completely privatizing K-12 education in this country is the answer. As private and parochial schools have the autonomy to choose which students to admit, I would be worried about some students falling through the cracks. Would the government mandate that private & parochial schools take a certain percentage of the least-desirable students the way it requires auto insurers to cover a certain number of the worst drivers through the "assigned risk" pool?

I am a firm believer in the idea that all parents in this country should have true educational choice for their children, not just the wealthy. This was #3 in my BlogHers Act list of the top 4 issues I would like to see the next president address. As I wrote in that post,
"Encourage true competition and let market pressures drive schools to innovate if they want to stay in business."
I'm glad that Goldberg has brought attention to this issue, even if I don't agree 100% with his proposed solution.

1 comment:

pjd said...

I have a really hard time with the idea of privatized education. Maybe it's my public-school background. Maybe it's that so many of my relatives have been public school teachers. Maybe it's a deeply seated liberal bent that causes a knee-jerk reaction to this.

While I agree that public school systems have to change, I can not bring myself to believe that it would be any better, on the whole, if it were privatized. The argument that private schools achieve better results on average is specious because private schools are populated by students whose parents put a premium on education already. They are willing to pay for it, and they put time and effort into ensuring the schools are high quality and their children are succeeding.

When I try to think ahead to the logical conclusion of privatization, I see an even greater rift between the haves and the have-nots. On the one hand, the best schools will be competing to bring in not only the brightest and best students but also the students with the most money. On the other end of the spectrum will be the welfare children. What economic incentive could there possibly be, besides government funds, to run a school for the poorest children who get to kindergarten age never having seen a book, growing up in a non-English speaking household, with one parent in jail or worse? These schools will be run either by the government (similar to government-provided welfare, food stamps, etc.) or by the equivalent of nonprofits with great intentions but few resources, or by crooks who see easy government money with little risk of offending anyone important.

As an example, look at colleges in the US. This is pretty much a free market system now. The best schools compete for the best students, strive to do the best research and publish, keep high reputations. There are middle tiers and lower tiers. Then there are those people who can't or won't go to college. Can't afford it or don't put a premium on education even though statistics make a strong correlation between a college degree and greater financial success. There is an entire population that does not go to college. I believe privatizing the "public" school system would turn it into something that looks like college now, with entire populations getting no education whatsoever, or minimal education at best at a state sponsored facility.

If, however, you enact laws to closely monitor the education industry, you have government's fingers in everything anyway and you end up with something like our health care system today. Over-regulated yet not fairly distributed, with huge profits but millions of people left unserved.

Frankly, I think privatizing education would help a large part of the middle class but would also cost people a lot of money. I can't believe that property taxes and other taxes would go down by 100% of the reduction in education funding. Once taxes go up, they have a way of staying up regardless of programs being shut down or ending.

Anyway, I feel like I'm coming across as some anti-capitalism naysayer. But in my heart I think privatizing education is a false god. It is no panacea; it is merely a different way of ending up with the same result.

Success in education is primarily dependent on parental involvement and early childhood development. I firmly believe that.