Commentary

The Seven Deadly Sins of Government-Funded Schools

By Mark Harrison
This article appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on August 14, 2005.
The U.S. public school monopoly is guilty of seven deadly sins: It wastes resources, discourages good teaching, inhibits parental involvement, suppresses information, stifles innovation, creates conflict and harms the poor.

Just as the seven deadly sins correspond to weaknesses in human nature, the sins of public education are inherent in the nature of the existing system — that it is controlled, operated and funded by government. The politicians and bureaucrats who control government-owned schools do not have the strong incentives or the information necessary to satisfy consumers, control costs, innovate or encourage good teaching.

Under our existing system, there are no price signals to elicit and confirm consumer preferences or provide incentives to meet them. The system lacks a simple and direct feedback mechanism that shows businesses whether their decisions are correct. The government never finds out whether it provided the right type or quantity of education. Political decisions are all or nothing. One decision is imposed on all, and there is no scope for diversity. The costs of change are large as the whole system lurches in one direction or another. Mistaken changes are disastrous.

Instead of pleasing consumers, promoting the public interest, or helping the disadvantaged, politically controlled schools are often used to benefit politically powerful special-interest groups like teacher unions.

The existing education system is not good at fixing or closing bad schools, and so such schools endure, despite decades of efforts to improve them. It also stifles competition, thereby protecting poorly performing schools and reducing pressure for them to change.

The abysmal performance of the government schools harms poor people the most. The poor are the more likely to use the worst schools. Rich parents can live wherever they want. This gives them some choice of schools, but more importantly, the rich can afford to pay for private schools. The credible threat that students will leave a bad school increases the competitive pressure on government schools in areas where families are well off. The poor have the fewest alternatives and the most to gain from expanded school choice. Further, students from dysfunctional families, who do not learn academic skills in the home, are more reliant on learning them in school.

The key to improving the education system is to move away from a politicized government-operated system to a decentralized, competitive market. Schools that compete and are directly accountable to parents simply work better than the bureaucratic alternative.

The market process creates incentives for efficiency and diversity and fosters innovation. An owner has strong incentives to make investments that reduce costs or use assets more effectively, because the owner reaps the rewards. Competition provides continual pressure for improvement in the quality and cost of services. Schools would have the incentive to experiment, to adopt new approaches and to replace ineffective methods with better ones.

In a competitive environment, management and staff at a school have an incentive to adopt changes that improve productivity in order to survive competition or to share in the dividends of success. Under the existing arrangement, neither teachers nor management benefits from greater productivity. Instead, the main concern is about distribution rather than efficiency — the amount of spending and the share going to teachers. Poor performance often leads to additional resources.

A further benefit from choice is increased parental involvement and a strengthened role for families. Greater parental involvement in schooling makes children perform better, and the benefits to children are just as large from parents of low education and income as from parents with more education and income.

The case for choice is about more than improving test scores and efficiency. Choice shifts authority from the government to parents and reinforces the family. School choice increases parents’ responsibility, self-sufficiency, independence and initiative rather than usurping their rightful role. It permits parents to raise their children according to their own values. It gives parents the opportunity to do their best for their children, rather than assuming they are incompetent. It gives parents real power, real freedom and real responsibilities over decisions that affect them and their loved ones deeply.

Mark Harrison is an economic consultant in Australia and author of an article on education choice in the Spring/Summer Cato Journal.