The Public School Disaster

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In
my state, in the coming weeks, there are going to be a great many
columns about the failure of the Texas legislature to finance the
public schools. 98% of what will be written will be irrelevancies
about money.

Our
public school system has problems that money can’t cure. This will
not be discussed. Despite its support by a mandatory attendance
(required for 13 years) and taxpayer financial support that is also
mandatory (averaging $9,000 per year per student), our public schools
now produce high school graduates with less than an 8th grade-level
education. Nationwide, the costs for this academic and social failure
are $536 billion per year (www.ed.gov).
And costs are going up.

The
principal reason for this situation is that educating our children
is no longer the primary purpose of the public schools. Today their
purpose is to employ six million people – not to deliver quality
education to our children, and certainly not to save money. It has
been this way for at least 20 years.

Albert
Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT),
had a penchant for telling it like it is. Back in 1985, he said
“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll
start representing the interests of school children.” Legislators,
the media, and the public may be confused on this issue, but the
teachers’ unions are not.

If
you gave all the money in the United States to the public schools,
they would not improve – they would simply cost more. The system
is tenaciously committed to expanding its work force, and paying
every teacher the same salary – whether that teacher is world-class
and deserves $200,000 per year, or whether that teacher is incompetent
and deserves to be fired.

There
is no question that much higher quality education can now be delivered
at a small fraction of current public school costs. But because
today’s public school mission is to employ people (not to educate
our children), these schools are never going to have lower cost
– and are unlikely ever to deliver even marginally better education.

Since
our public school system has dominated K-12 education for almost
100 years, most Americans can’t even conceive of how children could
learn to read and write if it weren’t for the government-run schools.
They ask, “Isn’t the education of our children too important to
be left to the uncertainties of the free market?”

If
we accept this rationale, logically we should put government in
charge of supplying our food. After all, we can go years without
education – and still survive. But food – we need food every
day, multiple times every day. How is it that the market can handle
this more essential and more difficult function – but not handle
education? Why is it that the nations that let government take over
the supplying of food have all ended up with widespread starvation?

In
1989 Albert Shanker again spelled it out clearly, “It’s time to
admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic
system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there
are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise
that our school system doesn’t improve; it more resembles the communist
economy than our own market economy.”

Lack
of money is not why our schools cost so much and perform so poorly.
Instead of desperately trying to fund the nonfunctional public school
system, our legislators should be working to empower parents and
children to break free – to make the choices that are best
for themselves.

In
1990 Shanker told us, “95% of the kids who go to college in the
U.S. would not be admitted to college anywhere else in the world.”
Maybe our legislators can also debate the question: why is it a
good idea to let our children be educated by the government?

August
16, 2005

Mike
Ford is a retired businessman living in Austin, Texas. See his website,
www.InitiativeforTexas.org,
a non-partisan project to obtain for Texans the right of direct
binding initiative.

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