Liberate the Public Schools


During a trip to Washington, D.C., last weekend, I was struck by a front-page Washington Post article on the dismal state of the city’s public schools. Despite spending more per student than virtually any other school district in the nation, the capital’s pupils are tragically deprived of a decent education, with nearly three-quarters of them lacking basic math skills.

"The district spends $12,979 per pupil each year," the Post reported. "But most of that money does not get to the classroom. D.C. schools rank first in the share of the budget spent on administration."

And the schools aren’t even safe. The Post reports that it takes more than a year to fix even the most dangerous conditions. The series tells a troubling story of bureaucracy, mismanagement, incompetence and corruption. The district, for instance, created a "showcase" school where money was no object, featuring a state-of-the-art TV system wired into every classroom. Three years later, the production room remains in a storage closet, unused and lacking the parts needed to get it up and running.

This is no anomaly. Read about the conditions in any major urban school system in the nation, and the story is essentially the same. Every year, Southern Californians learn about the latest plan to fix the Santa Ana school district or Los Angeles Unified, but no matter which officials are in charge or what political upheavals take place, the schools remain dismal, and the kids endure the brunt of the failure. L.A. officials put the dropout rate at somewhere between a third and a half of all students. That’s criminal.

Despite what the noxious teachers unions say, the answer is not "more money." Do any readers really believe that what the D.C. schools are lacking is sufficient tax dollars? Clearly, something is wrong with the foundation of the system.

Reading these stories reminds me of those reports about the economic situation in the old Soviet Union, where central planners were incapable of allocating resources to the right places. As a result, factories overproduced unneeded tractors but underproduced basic consumer goods. People waited in long lines to get foodstuffs. We’re always told that education is so important that it must be left to the experts, yet experts cannot be all-knowing. Would you trust the production of food, clothing or shelter — even more important to our well-being than education — to the same people who are producing education in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and even wealthy Capistrano Unified? I didn’t think so.

Planning an economy from the top down is "as hopeless as if a human being tried consciously to control all the muscles directing his breathing, blood circulation, and digestion, deciding just when to contract his right ventricle and how much insulin should be released by his pancreas," wrote Scott Shane in a 1994 book analyzing the failure of the Soviet "utopia."

That’s the same problem with the school systems in America, which are not particularly different than the Soviet economy. An elite group plans and directs a one-size-fits-all system. There are few choices. There are no consumers. This is a top-down, government-controlled monopoly system, with more than a little bit of coercive force at its disposal. How could a system such as this take root in a society that is supposed to pride itself on freedom and the market economy?

I highly recommend a little book, available for free online "I, Pencil." It traces the production of a simple, little consumer item: "I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies — millions of tiny know-how’s configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! … Man can no more direct these millions of know-how’s to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree."

In other words, no one person can do everything necessary to bring into being a simple, little pencil. The pencil is a miracle of the modern market economy, where billions of people make trillions of individual decisions in response to various incentives and disincentives. No one — and no cadre of experts — could know enough on their own to make these things happen. That’s why socialist economies eventually must fail. That’s why socialist education systems cannot provide decent education for kids no matter how much money is thrown at the bureaucracies. That’s why, unless the nation embraces radical education change, my great-grandchildren will be reading articles about the D.C. and L.A. school systems that aren’t much different from the stories we read today.

Although charter schools and tuition vouchers offer some hope for individual parents who want to get their kids out of urban public school nightmares or out of the mediocre, politically correct school systems in affluent suburbia, they are not the ultimate solution to the education problem. The solution is much simpler and more sensible: the complete elimination of the public school system and its replacement with a true free market. Parents would pay for their own kids’ education and would select from a host of private schools (ranging from big institutions to tiny home schools) that best serve their needs. They would shop for benefits, quality, features, location and price — just like we do for everything else in the market economy, such as cars, groceries and cell-phone service. That’s not to say that all private companies are good, but consumers have choices, and competition provides pressure for the bad ones to improve.

For years, it’s been considered too radical to say so. But maybe that is changing. A mainstream conservative, Jonah Goldberg of National Review, saw the same Post series as I did and penned an excellent newspaper column last week that asks this question: "Why have public schools at all?" All the predictable answers, he wrote, "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 90 percent of the restaurants, farms and supermarkets. Why should it run 90 percent of the schools — particularly when it gets terrible results?"

I’ve brought up this issue, even once in a public debate with the county school superintendent. Most supporters of public schools acknowledge that the middle class and wealthy people would do well if the system became entirely private. But what about the poor kids, they ask. That’s their ultimate attack on this idea.

That brings us back to the current state of affairs in the nation’s poor, urban school districts. Just look at the results in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Can it get any worse? I believe things can get much better, that the market (and private charities) will provide an astounding array of excellent choices in the poorest, bleakest neighborhoods.

We don’t know exactly how the new system would work, any more than I can tell you how a pencil came into being. But I do know that, as in all free markets, the results will be astounding. And an enormous amount of resources (almost half the state’s general-fund budget) would be unleashed, generating unheard-of prosperity. Call it the freedom dividend.

Well, I’m on board with the idea to shut down the public schools, and so is Jonah Goldberg. How can anyone object who believes in freedom rather than central planning?

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register. He is the author of the new book, Abuse of Power.