Educational Freedom

2003-09-03

I believe deeply in the importance of learning. However, that doesn't necessarily translate into a belief in the public school system (or in fact schools in general, but that's a topic for another time). My experience as a public school student led me to believe that schools aren't about learning, but about socialization, brainwashing, and the inculcation of conformity. Part of the problem is that public schooling is indeed a "system". There are plenty of good and well-intentioned teachers (and students) in the public schools, but they are trapped inside a system that is immune to fundamental change. There are many analogies to communism -- good people lived under the communist system, and they struggled to create value and provide important services under that system, but the system itself was a pervasive corrupting influence on them. I think very much the same is true of the public school system (which, after all, is quite socialistic in its premises). The only way to break free of that system is not to reform it, but to replace it.

I say that the public school system is socialistic. This thought strikes me as uncontroversial, but it may not be so to others. To illustrate what I mean, I like to tell a story about the mythical "public shoe system". Shoes are an important good, and we certainly would not want children to go barefoot all the time. So envision what would happen if some social reformers decided that shoes are too important to be left up to the market economy and voluntary philanthropy. Let no child go unshod! The government must provide shoes for the children! So these reformers set up the "public shoe system". The entire nation is divided into "public shoe districts". You may -- indeed, you must -- ensure that your child wears shoes (we'll hire truancy officers to travel about in order to enforce this rule). Private shoe stores and cobblers are still allowed (they cater mainly to the rich), but most people receive all their shoes from the public shoe district's government-paid shoemakers, since their shoes are free (well, paid for by the annual shoe tax -- TANSTAAFL and all that). The quality is rather low, but never mind that -- you can't look a gift horse in the mouth. Over time, the shoe tax is raised higher and higher to pay for the public shoe system, and quality continues to decline. Some radicals propose to introduce "shoe vouchers", which would allow parents to trade those vouchers for shoes from the cobbler of their choice, but they are struck down because this would be unfair to the poor (who surely would be forced to walk around barefoot, claim the old guard). The market could never provide an important good like shoes, and we certainly can't trust private shoemakers with regard to quality. Various government entities attempt to address the problem via more centralized control, extra rules that government cobblers must follow, scads of paperwork, frequent testing by the Podiatric Testing Service, and a federal Department of Footwear to set the standards and enforce the rules. This further demoralizes the cobblers on the front lines who are trying desperately to shoe the children according to their best judgment and highest professional standards. More and more cobblers leave the field. Turnover is high. Performance declines despite the fact that standards are raised. New podiatric techniques are tried, but nothing helps because the problem is the system. Home-shoeing takes off as individual parents decide that they can do a better job than the public shoe system. Chaos reigns supreme and a crisis point is reached.

What is the solution? Replace the system. Unfortunately, no one wants to replace the system until things become really, really bad. That's just what happened in the communist countries. It may be quite some time before that happens with the public school system. However, just as with communism, what looks like a solid structure from the outside is often a rotten shell with a hollow core. No one thought that communism would collapse, and everyone thought if it ever did that the motive power for the change would come from outside the system. Yet the change came from inside, when millions of individuals decided that enough was enough.

How might radical, transformative change occur in the way we educate young people? Personally I don't think vouchers and tax credits and such are the answer. What must happen for true educational freedom is the separation of school and state. Right now, teachers and schools are controlled by a political process. Funding comes from tax dollars, which are funneled through government. Because "he who pays the piper calls the tune", this means that what teachers do is ultimately (and often minutely) determined by politicians and bureaucrats, not the teachers themselves. This fundamental dynamic must be eradicated in order to bring about lasting educational reform.

This all may sound good to those of a libertarian persuasion, but there are two looming questions: (1) teachers don't work for free, so who will pay them to teach if government doesn't? (2) how do we get from here to there?

The answer to (1) is fairly straightforward: teachers will get paid just like everyone else does in a free society, i.e., by their customers. In the case of education (just as in the case of children's shoes), those customers are the parents. Many parents already are buyers of educational services, e.g. from private and parochial schools, tutoring services, test preparation centers, summer camps, music teachers, sports coaches, and the like. This kind of relationship provides a model for the funding of educational services in a free society.

Does that mean "public" schools are a thing of the past? Do we get out the wrecking ball and destroy the schools, or sell them for condo development to the highest bidder? Absolutely not. What we do is give the schools to the teachers. (This is effectively what some communist countries did with socialist enterprises.) And we do this not at the national, state, city, or district level -- we do it at the level of each individual school. Let each school become its own non-profit organization, owned and run by the teachers themselves. Fire the superintendents and school boards, but let the teachers and key administrators teach the children and provide the essential governance necessary in any non-profit organization. Let each school charge its own tuition for the services it renders (which will probably be lower than current costs per student, given the fact that much current school funding is wasted on bureaucrats and administrative staff, not spent on what happens in the classroom). Let schools return to serving their communities, not the whims of elected politicians and unelected bureaucrats.

Community schooling. It all sounds idyllic, no? Well, it won't be. Running a non-profit organization is hard work. Teaching will continue to be one of the most demanding professions around. Freeing parents to send their children to the school of their choice will introduce market discipline and force schools to compete on quality, service, and price. But at least community schooling will put the teachers in charge and give parents a true voice in the process (which, PTAs to the contrary, they don't have right now). With freedom comes responsibility. No one ever said that was fun or easy.

And what about the poor? I hear the cries of "Let no child go unschooled!" Won't poor parents immediately pull their children out of schools to save money (perhaps even spending it all on booze and cigarettes)? I doubt it. The one thing almost all parents want, of any income level, is a chance for their children to advance in life. And everyone recognizes that education is a huge part of that. There will always be individuals and foundations who would step in with support for poorer parents, as well as low-cost schools that do away with frills such as expensive football teams and fancy campuses.

Certainly it would be great if we could all wear expensive shoes, but sometimes Keds work just as well. The same is true of schools. Right now "one size fits all" means that one size fits no one, and everyone suffers. It's not the teachers or the parents or the children who are to blame for our current sorry state of affairs -- it's the system. And only systemic change will bring about true reform.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal