The Folly of Mann

Colleen Wilcox, Superintendent of Schools for Santa Clara County, has an op-ed in today’s San Jose Mercury News critiquing vouchers. There is a great deal wrong with what she has to say. Referring to Horace Mann, the godfather of American state schooling, she writes:

It’s true that the history of our public schools has seen its share of disappointments. At certain times, in certain places, the system undeniably failed the students. But on the whole, Horace Mann’s model has served us well.

At certain times? In certain places? American students perform worse relative to their international peers the longer they stay in school (see the “Global Context” section of that .pdf). When compared across subjects and grades to other industrialized countries by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the Program on International Student Assessment, and the International Adult Literacy Survey, our performance is about average at the 4th grade, below average by the 8th grade, and at or near the bottom among high-school seniors and recent graduates.

And these patterns hold not only for the overall averages, but for our top-scorers as well. Not just at certain times. Not just in certain places. 

Wilcox objects to vouchers on two grounds. First, that they are ostensibly “contrary to our fundamental belief in the separation of church and state.” Not so. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a universally available school voucher that treats parents’ religious and non-religious school choices neutrally is entirely consistent with the First Amendment and the principle it is meant to uphold. Anyone worried about compelled support issues under vouchers can simply opt for tax credits instead, as I recommend here.

Her second objection is that allowing families to chose “private schools would drain precious dollars away from public schools.” But, the thing is, if the children aren’t in the public schools anymore, there is no point in paying them for those children is there? Then we’d be paying them, literally, for doing nothing.

Now, you might counter that, given the number of functionally illiterate and unprepared students graduated by public schools every year, we are already paying public schools for nothing. But this, please note, is entirely by accident. A system of deliberately paying public schools for nothing would not be an improvement.

Educational freedom, and market competition, beat government monopoly provision. The sooner we realize that, the better off our children and our nation will be.

And as for Horace Mann, he predicted 160 years ago that if we “let the Common [a.k.a. “public”] School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”

Eight generations and trillions of dollars later, color me a little skeptical about the merits of state schooling.