Commentary

Bush’s Five-Year Education Plan

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
March 1, 2002

“It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

While those words sound like they may have been uttered by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, they were actually spoken by Albert Shanker, the union leader who passed away five years ago this month. And they also can help explain why President Bush’s education bill is doomed to be as successful as a Soviet Five Year Plan.

The public school system does resemble a communist economy in which decision-makers are more concerned with obeying regulations than with pleasing customers. To understand why Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” won’ t have a major effect in improving education in America, we should revisit one of the lessons from the failed Soviet economy.

It was impossible for Soviet bureaucrats to measure the success or failure of a given factory. For example, when authorities judged factories by how many chandeliers they manufactured, predictably, management at the factories began churning out numerous tiny chandeliers, to make itself look efficient. When the authorities caught on to what was happening, they began to judge factories according to the weight of chandeliers. The result? The factories began manufacturing huge, heavy chandeliers, completely discounting what customers may have preferred. According to one economist, “By the 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was complaining that chandeliers were so heavy that they were pulling down the ceilings.”

American public schools suffer from the same problem as those Soviet factories. Like those factories, public schools must concentrate on complying with regulations, rather than with satisfying customers. Without market incentives, schools will produce results just good enough to keep bureaucrats off their backs.

Trying to force even good national standards on a population used to treating education as a local issue won’t work. Predictably, educators have sought every possible means to circumvent regulations. An increasing number of teachers and administrators have been willing to cheat to inflate student scores on standardized tests. In some cases schools have sought to acquire the tests. In other cases, after spending a few years finding out what the tests require, teachers began to narrow the curriculum to only cover what the test covers. As with the factories in the Soviet Union, such edicts pressure school administrators and teachers to be more concerned about complying with the regulations than with good education.

The Bush administration may be able to squeeze information out of public school administrators to measure the success or failure of individual schools, but they are sure to encounter resistance. Those educators know that accurate information could result in students eventually getting vouchers or tuition tax credits to escape their schools.

As long as it is not in the interest of educators to police themselves, they won’t. The talk about accountability is surely an improvement, but accountability has severe limitations within a virtual monopoly, where accountability means making everyone and no one responsible.

There is one way to get educators to police themselves, and that is to rely on market incentives. But we probably won’t be willing to try that until we have exhausted all of the alternatives.

“We stand on the verge of dramatic improvements for America’s public schools,” President Bush said last year in an effort to pressure the House and Senate to iron out differences in their versions of his education bill. Instead of trying to impress their customers (parents), educators will now be trying to figure out which numbers they need to keep the federal government off their backs.

Casey Lartigue is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.