Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Radical Solution for Education?

Longtime readers of this blog already know my idea for improving education: require administrators to remain teachers even after they've accepted their non-teaching duties. But columnist Jonah Goldberg has a much more extreme idea: Do away with public schools altogether. Here's a sample:
[C]hildren are the future. And a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Because we can't leave any child behind.

The problem with all these bromides is that they leave out the simple fact that one of the surest ways to leave a kid "behind" is to hand him over to the government. Americans want universal education, just as they want universally safe food. But nobody believes that the government should run nearly all of the restaurants, farms and supermarkets. Why should it run the vast majority of the schools – particularly when it gets terrible results?

[...]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, providing subsidies and oversight when necessary but then getting out of the way?

Milton Friedman noted long ago that the government is bad at providing services – that's why he wanted public schools to be called "government schools" – but that it's good at writing checks.

So why not cut checks to people so they can send their kids to school?

What about the good public schools? Well, the reason good public schools are good has nothing to do with government's special expertise and everything to do with the fact that parents care enough to ensure their kids get a good education. That wouldn't change if the government got out of the school business.

What would change is that fewer kids would get left behind.
Read the whole thing. So is this a good idea, or does it go too far? I've thought about this for part of the week, and I've come up with a list of potential pros and cons of the idea of total school privatization:

  • In all likelihood, my administrators-must-teach policy would be part of the deal, as many private-school administrators do teach. (They seem to have a heightened sense of ownership in the process when their position is not just a meritocratic perk.)

  • It would be much easier to fire a bad teacher in a private school. (I'm reasonably sure that the reach of the teachers' unions doesn't extend to this situation.)

  • I"m also pretty certain that private schools would have more leeway to expel a student who's constantly disruptive, breaking school rules, etc.; a private business pretty much reserves the right to refuse to do business with anyone.

  • As Goldberg's article notes, parents at private schools tend to be much more involved in their kids' education, and that involvement is usually greeted with open arms, not hostility (as is often the case in public schools).

  • The government might actually save money if it wrote tuition vouchers instead of shelling out all the money that currently goes to non-teaching positions in the public schools.
  • If schools were in the business of competition for students, we might see all kinds of unsavory behavior: obnoxious, misleading commercials, athletic recruiting scandals, and so on.

  • I've always said that it's not good for education to run it like a business, because knowledge is not a mere commodity, and neither are the students themselves. What would happen if every school really were a business?

  • Would anyone go to his/her neighborhood school anymore, or would things continue to be even more fragmented? And how about all the gas that would be wasted getting students from place to place?

  • And finally, despite their problems, I just don't know if I'm ready to give up on the public schools quite yet. (But I still would like to see someone have the courage to implement my plan and clean things up at the "top" level.)
Hmm--it looks like most of my "pros" are concrete things, while my "cons" are more like "what if's." So I guess that makes me a fence-sitter so far. I'd love to hear ideas from my fellow teachers on this idea.

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