Breaking News: Not All Children Are the Same

An article in this morning’s Los Angeles Times reports that delaying children’s entry into kindergarten “appears to help some, harm others or have no effect at all.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, what would have been surprising is if all children responded to delayed kindergarten in precisely the same way. After all, no two children are exactly alike, right?

Of course. Which is why American public education works so poorly: Even though all children are different, public school districts have no choice but to educate them as if they weren’t. By their very nature, uniform systems of education must do things uniformly.

Consider reading instruction: Just like their varied responses to delayed kindergarten entry, children respond in numerous ways to different reading curricula. School districts, however, can typically teach reading using only one technique, usually either whole language, phonics, or so-called “balanced” instruction. That means that if your child would benefit most from phonics-based instruction but is in a whole language district, he’s out of luck.

Or look at discipline. Some children need rigid rules and regulations, while others need freedom to thrive. School districts, however, can’t apply different disciplinary rules to different children, so a large number of children are going to get the short end of the stick (or carrot) no matter what.

The best way to ameliorate this problem is to eliminate it: Get rid of one-size-fits-all public schools, and create a system in which “the public” does nothing more than help needy parents afford the schools that best address their children’s needs. In other words, let the market go to work. Only then will all children finally get the made-to-order education they need to succeed.

Gray Power and State Tax Competition

At my neigborhood Fourth of July block party yesterday (in Fairfax County, Virginia), a 40-year resident gave a going-away speech to the crowd. She and her husband were sick and tired of the high state and local taxes in Fairfax and had looked into alternate warm states that had more pocketbook-friendly tax regimes. They settled on a small town in North Carolina. Interestingly, she appeared to be a hard-core Democrat.

Expect to hear lots more about comparative state tax rates as tens of millions of baby boomers begin retiring in coming years. 

Negative Ads Inform Voters

Last week the New York Times roiled the upcoming U.S. Senate election in New Jersey by reporting that Repubican Thomas Kean Jr. planned to produce a film claiming that his opponent, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), was implicated in a corruption investigation twenty years ago.

Critics sometimes deplore such “negative advertising” and call for restrictions on such speech or the money that funds it. Under such a scenario, the government would gain the power to approve the content and tone of electoral advertising.

The Supreme Court, however, has never recognized “improving speech” as a legitimate reason for regulating money in politics. That’s a good thing.

The Kean film, if produced, will give New Jersey voters important information. If Kean’s claims about Menendez’s past are true, surely voters would want to know that. On the other hand, if Kean is making wild charges, the voters could also draw their own conclusions about his fitness for office.

The best solution to abuses of free speech is more speech, not government control over politics.

Pulp Non-Fiction: The Seedy Side of Monopoly Schooling

The Detroit Free Press reported recently that the city’s schools have been ordered to repay nearly a million dollars in federal Title I funding because “there are no assurances that these [funds] did not benefit an employee personally.” The money went to flat screen TVs that are nowhere to be found, anger management classes that never occurred, and half a million dollars to, uh, pass out flyers. Did I mention that the $500,000 paper route went to an ex-con in a no-bid contract?

Critics of market-based education reform claim that it would open the door to corruption. As it happens, corruption has been living happily within the public schools for some time now, raiding the icebox and stealing kids’ lunch money – not to mention the money that is supposed to go toward their education. Cato’s Neal McCluskey published a run-down of this broken-down system last year.

Hat tip: Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Government Catch-22

The Washington Post reports today on the series of corruption scandals to hit Connecticut in recent years.

One scandal involved former Governor John Rowland, who was sentenced to jail for illegally accepting gifts. The Post quotes Rowland’s defense attorney lamenting that a new state legislature effort to crack down on corruption by imposing tighter rules will mean that “government will operate less efficiently.”

That illustrates a central conundrum of Big Government. Because today’s governments give away billions of dollars in contracts, grants, benefits, and loans they must have massive and complex bureaucratic rules to minimize the inevitable efforts to rip-off the taxpayer through fraud and corruption.

But all the red tape that is needed to prevent even the worst abuses results in the government working nowhere nearly as efficiently as private enterprise. Government bureaucrats, and anyone dealing with the government, spend an enormous amount of time and money filling out paperwork, but if you believe in big government programs, there is no way around that.

The only solution to excess bureaucracy and the chronic corruption in Washington and the states is to downsize government by moving activities to private competitive markets. See my book, Downsizing Government.

Pardon Me, Congressman, Is That a Log in Your Eye?*

China hawk extraordinaire Rep. Steve Chabot had a piece in the DC Examiner last week calling for a “fresh review of America’s interests in Asia.” For one thing, Rep. Chabot loudly protested China’s “enormous and ever-growing militarization program.”

For advocates of Taiwan independence like Rep. Chabot, the PRC’s military modernization program is no doubt worrisome. But the United States is in no position to protest any other country’s allegedly “enormous and ever-growing militarization program.”

US defense spending is more than $400 billion annually, not including the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US has the largest blue-water navy in the world, with 12 aircraft carriers. We can project naval (or other) power anywhere in the world in a matter of days.

Chinese defense spending is hard to pin down, precisely, but experts generally center around a median estimate in the neighborhood of $50 billion. China has 0 aircraft carriers, and thus is unable even to protect its precarious supply of energy that comes from the Middle East through the Strait of Malacca.

China looks at things pretty simply: The United States could militarily impose its will on issues that China perceives as life-or-death concerns: the future of Taiwan, the balance of power in East Asia, and the security of China’s supplies of energy. It would be like if China were the dominant military power in the Western hemisphere, and then started squawking about America’s attempt to build up its own military.

For Rep. Chabot (or Secretary Rumsfeld) to think that the United States has any position to protest anybody’s “enormous and ever-growing militarization program” is a bit ridiculous. At a time when we’re engaged in two wars halfway ‘round the world, spending nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, it’s a shaky line of reasoning that says that China’s attempt to bring a 1950s-era military into the 21st century is anything that we are in any position to protest.

As Martin Wolf noted in the FT last September (sub. req’d),

the Chinese can justifiably react by asking why the US needs to spend as much on its military as the rest of the world put together. With Canada and Mexico as its neighbours, why does it feel so threatened? To this the US would respond that it has special responsibilities as guarantor of world peace and, in any case, threatens no other nation. China, in its turn, could then ask who elected the US global policeman and why, given the public debate in the US about whether and how to curb its rise, it should trust its security to the US.

Just so.

* For an explanation of the title, go here.