The Public School Disaster

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 ( 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,, a non-partisan project to obtain for Texans the right of direct binding initiative.