Commentary

Why Schools Fail

By Bruce Goldberg
December 26, 1996

Students will be returning to classes soon. Most will be going back to schools that neither they nor their parents have chosen. As a result, many will find this semester as dull, stifling, and unfulfilling as the last one. It is time to change that situation. It is time to implement school choice.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, captured one of the reasons for the dismal performance of government-run schools nicely when he wrote, “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.” Such a school system, he concluded, “more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.” And it will continue to do so until the government’s monopoly on education is broken.

As things stand now, there is little motivation for teachers to make any extra effort, to improve their teaching skills, to learn new methods of instruction, or to spend more time with a child. There is no reward for superior performance. Nor is there any penalty for incompetence. Add to that a multilayered bureaucracy ranging from the federal Department of Education to the local school board and what you have is a recipe for disaster.

A system that would grant parents of schoolchildren an educational voucher for an amount equal to what the school district spends on each child would restore choice and empower individuals. Bureaucrats would no longer tell people which schools their children had to attend; that decision would be given back to the people who care the most about each child — the parents themselves.

Moreover, a voucher system would produce a competitive environment that invites and encourages innovation. Under competition, schools, for their own survival, would have to be sensitive and responsive to consumer demand. There would not be such casual suppression of each child’s individual needs.

Many defenders of the present system have challenged the very idea of parental choice. The schools, it is argued, should not be responsive to parents in the way proposed. Parents are not educational experts and have no business making decisions about the educations of their children. That is a matter that should be left to educational “professionals,” who will shape and mold the children into perfect citizens. Those professionals will not just teach them, they will construct them. As Horace Mann, an early proponent of public schooling, put it, “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.”

That argument is one that many will rightfully dismiss as extreme paternalism unsuited to the American tradition of individualism. But it is even more flawed than that. Implicit in the argument is the assumption that there is such a thing as “educational science.” No such science exists, however. The case of Robert Owen illustrates that point clearly.

Owen, an Englishman who founded the “scientific” community of New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825, believed he had discovered an educational science suited to all. According to Owen’s “new view of society,” it was possible to produce the type of individual one wanted by simply controlling a person’s environment — that is, by controlling what he was allowed to read, what he was told, and so on. Within a year, however, a group of people had left New Harmony and had established their own community a few miles away. And less than three years later there had been so many defections that Owen sold the land and returned to England. His attempt to establish a rationally grounded, scientific community in which everyone would be educated uniformly had failed. That should have been no surprise.

Owen had attempted to treat the citizens of New Harmony, all of whom he saw as his students, as something they were not — inanimate objects. He didn’t understand that people are conscious, volitional, and unique, and that it is impossible to treat them as physicists would treat the objects they study. Like our current public school system, New Harmony’s educational system was based on the fatal conceit that one single person or organization can know what is best for everyone else in society.

School choice is an idea whose time has come. It will restore decisionmaking responsibility to parents and students. More important, it will help produce an environment in which schools recognize and respond to the fact that children are all different and have different needs.

Bruce Goldberg is professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland and author of Why Schools Fail (Cato Institute, 1997).