Educating Americans

Primary and secondary education in this country is an embarrassment.  OK, OK, that’s an exaggeration, to some degree.  We have many fine schools in this country, some private and some tax-supported.  But overall, we are being taken to the cleaners by almost every other developed country in the world, educationally speaking.  So what do we do about it?

Primary and secondary education is among the most highly-regulated areas in the marketplace.  And, please, don’t tell me that education is too important to be thought of as ruled by the market.  The fact is, education is too important to delude ourselves that it is not, in large measure, ruled by market forces.  Denial won’t help.  Education is too damned important to be left to government.

But a federal Department of Education tells local school districts what they can and cannot do.  States regulate the length of the school year, hours in the school day, and plenty of other things.  Local school boards try desperately to balance the needs of students with the interests of taxpayers, many of whom frankly resent having their money siphoned away for the schools without their advice and consent.

The big problem with government solutions to, well, anything, really, is that government specializes in the “one big solution.”  When confronted with a challenge, elected representatives and un-elected bureaucrats  tend to put their heads together and arrive at a single prescription to “solve the problem.”  Then they impose it on everyone.  This is a mistake in almost any situation, but the more complex the problem, the more problematic the “one big solution” generally is.  And there are few issues more complex than educating our young people.

Because, you see, we don’t all learn the same way, have the same capabilities, or want to meet the same goals and desires.  Sure, government schools offer some options, sometimes, although as budget pressures increase, more and more of those options are disappearing.  But government schools mandate one teaching method, one set of tests to be passed, one set of requirements to be met – or not met! – and one exit door that they kick you out of when your time is up, whether you’ve met their requirements or not.

I’m very visual.  I learn from reading or watching much more quickly than I do from hearing a lecture.  I learned that back in high school, when I noticed that I had to take notes in class to really understand the material, but once I’d taken the notes, I seldom needed to refer to them.  Once I’d seen them, I’d remember them.  But some people learn much better from what they hear than from what they see.

So, then, what’s the answer?  We could try being more restrictive.  That’s the approach many European countries use.  They get better results by culling the herd; testing students early and then locking them into college-bound or vocational tracks – for life.  That won’t work here.  Americans won’t sit still for it.

Well, I’ve probably already tipped my hand.  Don’t try anything, no matter how good it sounds or how many experts – or bureaucrats – are telling you that it’s the “one big answer.”  Try everything.  Let the students, and their parents, decide what’s best for themselves.

Some students will do their best learning in front of a computer terminal.  They should do that.  Others will benefit most from tutored homeschooling.  They should do that.  Still others will perform best in a traditional classroom setting, but even there, not every classroom, or every school, will work equally well for them.  Government has, at least according to many non-libertarians, an interest in seeing that everyone eats, but government doesn’t produce milk, can corn, or cut steaks.  There’s no good reason why government’s role in education should be greater than ensuring that everyone has a chance to get one.  If that.  And under a free market in education, schools will compete with one another the way they can’t and don’t now.  Some will go heavily into math and science, others into languages, or the humanities, or the arts.  And some will have routine academics and really great football teams.  And there will be a demand for all of these options.

This will work out better even for homeschooled students, and for those attending cyberschools as well.  At least some brick and mortar schools that have a great music program will be thrilled to have that homeschooling clarinet player come in an hour a day for band practice.  The student gets an opportunity to play, the school gets a motivated musician.  It’s a win-win situation.

I know a handful of teachers in government schools, and so far, I admit that I’ve had little success in selling this idea to them, but it will work out well for good teachers as well.  When schools compete for students and parents’ dollars, they’ll compete for the best teachers as well.  The very best will be able to write their own tickets, just as the finest college professors do today.

I’d like to be able to tell my Libertarian colleagues that in adopting this system, we’d be able to stop funding education through taxes, which is to say, through theft.  And I believe that, in the long run, and once we’ve been able to adopt market-based solutions across the economy, prosperity will increase and economic need will decrease until those with real need will be able to have those needs met through private means of various sorts, like charities or educational scholarships.  But realistically, that won’t happen overnight, and we can’t jump into the Wayback Machine and travel back to the days before big government started to really screw things up.  So for the time being, government will have to provide some funding, even if it becomes need-based instead of general.  And no, I don’t really like that any better than you do.

But the overall strategy I’ve outlined here could be put into action almost as quickly as the political will to do it develops.  And everyone, even the poor, sorry taxpayer, will be better off.

Now, I had two reasons for going off on the above rant.  First, I truly believe that it’s at least a starting point for addressing the problems of educating our students in this country.  But there’s another reason.

Taken point by point, it’s a pretty “radical” proposal.  It proposes breaking up or privatizing government schools, making the broadest possible range of options available to students and parents, and relying on tried and true market forces to produce the best results.  The only area in which it falls short of the most radical Libertarian ideas is in the reluctant concession that we can’t end funding by means of theft overnight.  That’s all.

Yet I’ve tried to phrase the proposals positively and focus on the benefits.  I have studiously avoided calling anyone thieves or villains, and I’ve tried to explain how they could benefit as well.

It’s not edgy.  It’s not “out there.”  It’s not “like it or lump it.”  But it also is unlikely, I hope and believe, to be thrown in the face of a Libertarian candidate on the stump, or drive those candidates, or our volunteers or donors, away from us.  While this might be too much to hope for, I do hope that it won’t generate too much “Libertarian on Libertarian crime.”  Is this the kind of message we want to offer?  You decide!

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