To paraphrase John Lennon, imagine there are no public schools, or private ones, too. That is what writer Julie Halpert ostensibly does in a new Atlantic article in which she purports to conduct a “thought experiment,” first imagining a world of all private schools, then one of all public. But rather than coming off as a true, objective experiment, the piece reads more like a dystopian novel depicting the horrors of an imagined all‐private system, while comparatively glancing past the many real, actually experienced stains and injustices of public schooling.
It’s not auspicious that the article, before the “experiment” is even proposed, begins with a description of the posh Detroit Country Day School, which likely reinforces the impression that many people seem to have that private schools are snooty preserves of the uber‐rich. Halpert notes that the price of Detroit Country Day for high school is about $30,000 per year, but doesn’t mention that the average tuition at a private high school, according to the most recent federal data, is only about $13,000. That average price is high when you’re comparing it to “free” public schools for which you’ve already paid taxes, but not Detroit Country Day high.
With commencement of the experiment we are given a little history…very little. Halpert completely bypasses American educational history prior to Horace Mann’s crusade for common schools starting in the 1830s, noting only that some of our oldest high schools, specifically tony West Nottingham Academy and Phillips Academy, date back to the 18th Century. Halpert also writes that Mann was largely responsible for “the perception of education as a public good.” She ignores the evidence the education was delivered in myriad ways and was very widespread prior to the common schooling crusade—about 90 percent of white adults were literate by 1840—or that it often had a heavily moral character geared at both the private and public good. This is a huge omission, leaving out evidence that largely private provision of education, though sometimes with a modicum of government funding, worked, at least for those who weren’t subjugated by law. Law which was, of course, promulgated by government, the entity that would supply public schools.
In a recent column, David Brooks considers Charles Murray’s thesis that “America is coming apart,” and concludes that:
The country… needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires… building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.
The first recommendation is reasonable. The second suggests Brooks is not very familiar with the history of education.
For the past century and a half, the biggest single intervention by the government in American lives has been our state school systems. Prior to the mid 1800s, all education in this country was local. The majority of children attended private schools, and those who attended the local “common” or “public” schools usually paid tuition. Even “common” schooling was only free for the truly destitute. Partly as a result of this direct financial responsibility, parents had ultimate control over what and by whom their children were taught.
From the 1830s to the 1850s, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann and his colleague in the House, James Carter, imagined and ultimately laid the foundation of the state school system we know today. They did so for a variety of reasons, one being their belief that the common man and woman could not be trusted to educate their own children. Their solution was to take educational power and responsibility out of parents’ hands and place it under the control of state‐trained, state‐appointed experts.
Shockingly, taking responsibilities away from people does not make them more responsible. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it, or lose it. The kinds of “organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly” are those that actually impose responsibilities upon them. When parents must not only choose but pay for their children’s education, they expect rather more from the system than when they are assigned “free” schooling by the state. And school efficiency rises as a result.
Some parents could not afford to pay for a good education for their children even without the heavy tax burden imposed by the present bloated state school monopolies. For those parents, we could easily provide financial assistance to cover most or (as necessary) all the cost of schooling. This is already being done on a small but growing scale in 8 states, thanks to k‑12 education tax credit programs.
If Brooks wants “an organization and structure” that induces people to behave responsibly, he need look no further than the free enterprise system. “Using government” to achieve that end has been tried for 150 years, and the results are not impressive.
Yesterday the First Lady addressed high school students visiting Georgetown University for a day. Her message was to encourage students to strive for academic success and college degrees, but her answer to one question said a whole lot more. Here’s the question:
about the community, like, about this violence and teen pregnancy that’s going on.… What could you and your husband do to change or help out us young people? Because it’s like someone dying every day. Like, it’s just crazy.
Mrs. Obama answered at length, stressing the need for every individual to take responsibility for his own life and his own destiny, going so far as to add that
there’s all this stuff the President and Congress can do, but trust me, they can’t fix that. No matter what, they can’t get in your head and change that. You have to do that.
The First Lady is right that people must take responsibility for themselves, but what she seems not to realize is that government programs often stifle that kind of behavior. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it or lose it. The only way you learn how to behave responsibly is to actually have real responsibilities. Government has gotten in the way of that process in a host of ways, but nowhere so perniciously as in education. Today, the only educational responsibilities most parents have is to get their kids up in the morning and point them in the direction of the school or the school bus. They don’t decide where their kids go to school, who teaches them, or what they’ll be taught. The natural result—the inevitable result—is the atrophy of parental responsibility towards their children’s education and the horrendous cascade of social ills that flows from it.
Most of this is the fault of our state school monopolies that automatically assign children to schools based on where they live. But the federal government has exacerbated that problem by centralizing control over schooling even further. By abolishing their failed k‑12 education programs alone, Congress would save the nation’s taxpayers roughly $70 billion annually. And by encouraging states to return power over education to parents instead of leaving it with bureaucrats, they would dramatically increase the exact kind of responsible behavior that Mrs. Obama knows is essential to solving so many of our social and economic problems.
Consider that the state of Florida has a program that cuts taxes on businesses that donate to non‐profit k‑12 scholarship funds. Those scholarship organizations subsidize private school tuition for low‐income families. According to two separate studies, this program improves achievement in public schools, by virtue of the new competitive pressures it introduces, and it improves the achievement of the students who participate. And by requiring parents to make the difficult decisions as to where to send their children to school, and by requiring most parents to contribute at least a small co‐payment, this program builds exactly the kind of responsibility and exactly the kind of social capital that Mrs. Obama so rightly yearns for.
Oh, and, by the way, it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, so it makes economic sense in the immediate term as well as in the long term.
But there’s a catch: This practical and proven solution does not seem to fit well with Mrs. Obama’s political ideology—or, more damagingly, with her husband’s. So instead of ending failed federal education programs and encouraging parental choice, power, and responsibility, the president will keep pursuing federal programs that even his own wife recognizes are doomed to fail.
But while it’s hard for a person to change his ideology, it’s easy for a country to change its president.
Charles Krauthammer’s latest column is titled “The Union‐Owned Democrats.” In it, he recounts a litany of economically ruinous actions being pursued by unions around the country, from blocking free trade agreements to hobbling Boeing’s efforts to compete with Airbus. He writes that “unions need Democrats — who deliver quite faithfully,” and that “Democrats need unions.”
Like a hole in the head.
Yes, it’s been a politically and financially symbiotic relationship for many decades. Unions get rents, Democrats get elected. But, as I argue in a cover story for The American Spectator this month (now on‐line: “A Less Perfect Union”), it can’t last.
The biggest unions of all are the public school employee unions—the AFT and the NEA—with well over 4 million members between them. As I point out in my Spectator piece, these unions have become too successful for their own good—and for the good of the Democratic party.
In their game of Monopoly with American kids and taxpayers they have created staggering bloat in public school employment (which has grown 10 times faster than student enrollment over the past 40 years), and they have wheedled total compensation packages worth $17,000 more per year than those of their private sector counterparts (who, according to most of the research, outperform them in the classroom).
But the union‐led public school spending spree has nearly bankrupted states all over the country. If California’s public schools had just maintained the same level of efficiency they’d had in 1970 (not gotten better, as other fields have, just stagnated), it would turn the state’s $26 billion deficit hole into a surplus.
Americans are rapidly running out of money to pay for their states’ school monopolies, and they are rapidly introducing school choice bills (42 states have done so this year), to give families alternatives. But as families escape the highly unionized monopoly and send their kids to school in the largely non‐unionized private sector, teachers union power will implode. And resentment at having been gored for so long by the now bankrupt and discredited system will focus on the party that fought to preserve it until the bitter end… Democrats.
In my Spectator piece, I explain why that would be a bad thing, and what Democrats could do to avoid that fate. “Public schooling” is just a tool, and an ineffective, unaffordable one at that. Public education is a set of goals and ideals that can be advanced much more effectively by other policy mechanisms. The sooner Democrats realize that, the less likely they are to be dragged to the bottom of the political sea by the sinking union‐helmed school monopoly.
Ruling in ACSTO v. Winn today, the United States Supreme upheld Arizona’s k‑12 scholarship tax credit program. Under this program, individuals receive a tax cut if they donate to a non‐profit scholarship fund that gives out private school tuition aid.
Today’s decision, a reversal of an earlier ruling by the 9th Circuit, found that the respondents had no right to sue to stop the AZ program because they have not been harmed by it. And the reason they have not been harmed is central to why, for nearly 20 years, I have favored education tax credit programs over both traditional public schooling and voucher programs.
Respondents alleged that cutting a person’s taxes is equivalent to spending government money — and since taxpayers are receiving credits for donations to religious organizations, that was ostensibly equivalent to the government giving to those organizations. The Court answered, quite simply: “That is incorrect.” Elaborating, the Court ruled that:
tax credits and governmental expenditures do not both implicate individual taxpayers in sectarian activities. A dissenter whose tax dollars are “extracted and spent” knows that he has in some small measure been made to contribute to an establishment in violation of conscience.… [By contrast,] awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own consciences. [emphasis added]
That is precisely the argument I have been making for a very long time (last Friday, at a conference in Berkeley; last year in a blog post, here; a dozen years ago, in my book Market Education: The Unknown History).
With this ruling, the way forward for the school choice movement is clearer than it has ever been. Education tax credits — both the scholarship form operating in Arizona and the direct form operating in Illinois and Iowa — allow for universal access to the education marketplace without forcing any citizen to subsidize instruction that violates their convictions. No other school choice system offers that advantage and it is an advantage that is central to the values of our nation. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Act Establishing Religious Freedom:
To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical
Public schooling has long been a source of social conflict because it engenders just such compulsion. Education tax credits offer a way of securing universal public education without this blight. It is time to adopt them more widely.
Since its beginning, one of the primary drivers behind public schooling — government schooling — has been a desire to compel belief, whether in “American” values, God, the primacy of science, or myriad other things that some people have thought it essential for all people to accept. The result has been constant conflict that, rather than uniting diverse people — a companion goal of public schooling — has divided them. And not only have crusades to force belief created ongoing conflicts, there’s generally been little evidence they’ve actually changed the targeted beliefs. So we’ve gotten all the downside of trying to force alterations to hearts and minds without actually changing them.
Case in point, the seemingly endless war over the teaching of human origins.
Despite decades of keeping religion out of the public schools, the latest polling shows that 40 percent of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form about 10,000 years ago, while only 16 percent think that human beings evolved without the participation of God.
New research from a couple of Penn State political scientists elucidates one reason — besides simple, honest disagreement — that this is the case. While law can prohibit the teaching in public schools of such alternatives to evolution as creationism and intelligent design, it cannot actually make biology instructors teach evolution. And, it turns out, a major reason many teachers tiptoe around evolution is that they fear the backlash that would come from forcing a singular view on diverse people.
According to Michael Berkman and Eric Pultzer, roughly 60 percent of respondents in the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers reported that they either steer clear of evolution or dance around it not necessarily because they reject the theory, but because they don’t want trouble. “Our data show that these teachers understandably want to avoid controversy,” the researchers said. It’s a finding that confirms an anecdotal New York Times report from a few years ago, and that fits with other analyses of public schooling that conclude that often the easiest thing for public schools to do is simply avoid any disputed topic.
So what do we do?
For starters, stop making education policy based on the notion that some things are so important all people must be forced to believe in them. You simply cannot compel belief — at best, you’ll get the parroting back of what you want to hear, not true acceptance. Worse, you’ll very likely create a situation where no one gets what they want and everyone ends up with empty, incoherent, compromised curricula.
The ultimate solution is to let parents choose options for their children without first having to pay for the “one, best system,” and to let educators provide schooling tailored to the values and needs of whomever they wish to serve. Then everyone will be be able to access coherent curricula rather than being saddled with educational mush.
Of course, many people will choose to have their children learn things with which neither you nor I agree. We can make that clear to them by selecting different options for our own children and openly debating conflicting opinions. What we cannot do is continue to try to impose our beliefs on them: not only is it incompatible with a free nation and antithetical to social unity, it often ends up keeping everyone from getting what they believe is best for their children.
In today’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson argues that the performance of U.S. public schools is at least adequate, and that the relatively low achievement of black and Hispanic students is to be attributed to history and culture rather than to our education system. These claims are not new, and I might well have ignored them if he hadn’t got my Irish up with the off‐hand comment that “what we face is not an engineering problem.” (More on that in a second.)
First, let’s dispatch the claim that public schooling is off the hook for the poor performance of low‐income minority children. I’m currently undertaking a statistical study of the performance of 78 separate charter school networks in California, relative to one another and to the state’s traditional public schools. To foreshadow the results, the performance differences within socioeconomic groups are enormous even after controlling for school‐wide peer effects. Among low‐income Hispanic students, across grades, schools and subjects, average scores at two of the top charter networks (American Indian Public Schools and Oakland Charter Academies) are roughly 4 standard deviations above the statewide traditional public school mean. Quatre. Quattro. FOUR.
To put that in perspective, effect sizes in social science research are normally evaluated based on Jacob Cohen’s rule of thumb that 0.2 standard deviations is “small”, 0.5 is “moderate”, and anything bigger than 0.8 is “large.” To put it further in perspective, the low‐income Hispanic effect sizes of two of California’s most elite and academically selective public schools are closer to 2 S.D. So the top charter networks, which accept every student who applies, massively outperform elite public schools that actively select their students based on prior test scores. Consistently. Across grades and subjects. [Note that there’s also wide variation in performance among charter school networks, with many performing below the mean of traditional public schools. Further details when the paper is published in a few months].
So, no, public schooling is not off the hook. We know it is possible to dramatically raise the achievement of low‐income minority students above the current public school level. The problem is that we lack a system for reliably replicating the good schools and crowding out the rest. And what kind of problem is that? Even Wikipedia knows the answer:
Engineering is the discipline, art and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge to design and build… systems… and processes that safely realize solutions to the needs of society.
Engineering is just a broad set of tools for finding practical solutions to complex problems. One of the most useful of those tools is an aversion to reinventing the wheel, so engineers always ask how the kind of problem they’re addressing has been approached previously, in other places, even in other fields. When possible, they adapt proven solutions to the problem at hand.
So let’s all be engineers for a day on January 28th and hear what education experts from Sweden and Chile have to say about how their nations have been encouraging the replication of good schools. You can register for this unique lunchtime event here.