Public education is important—this much is beyond dispute. But besides that one understatement, everything else is fair game. As a core cog in American life, as a political and ideological institution, and as a voracious gobbler of tax dollars, K-12 education should be discussed far more often than it is. So let’s discuss it now.
In particular let’s look at where the current system is working well and where it’s not working at all. After that’s done, I’ll segway into a sales pitch for an alternative—and I think better—education system, called the voucher system, which has already been implemented successfully in other countries (Sweden, for example).
In an influential essay on government and education, Milton Friedman writes:
A stable and democratic society is impossible without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens and without widespread acceptance of some common set of values. Education can contribute to both. In consequence, the gain from the education of a child accrues not only to the child or to his parents but also to other members of the society. The education of my child contributes to your welfare by promoting a stable and democratic society.
In other words: a meaningful democracy requires an informed citizenry. I argued this in my last post on Liberal Arts education, but it’s a point worth reiterating. Participatory government means doodely squat if the people participating aren’t privy to the rules of the game. And while Friedman was intentionally vague about the “minimum degree” of knowledge required, I’ll go and ahead and say that his bar was probably higher than what is currently accepted. One thing, however, is for sure: literacy is a prerequisite for being informed. And government schools are doing a great job at keeping our literacy rate close to 100%. So that’s good. Now onto the bad and the ugly.
The Bad & The Ugly
Instead of schools being incubators for debates and discussions and ideas, we’re stuck with dizzyingly impoverished mathematics programs (see the Paul Lockhart’s famous rant on this), teachers who are either lazy and worthless or brilliant and stifled, and a bureaucratic nightmare that would make Kafka blush. And this is just the beginning. Noam Chomsky painted an even more frightening portrait when he said:
There are huge efforts that do go into making people, to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase, “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be.” A lot of the educational system is designed for that, if you think about it, it’s designed for obedience and passivity. From childhood, a lot of it is designed to prevent people from being independent and creative. If you’re independent-minded in school, you’re probably going to get into trouble very early on… Mass education was designed to turn independent farmers into docile, passive tools of production. That was its primary purpose. And don’t think people didn’t know it. They knew it and they fought against it. There was a lot of resistance to mass education for exactly that reason. It was also understood by the elites. Emerson once said something about how we’re educating them to keep them from our throats. If you don’t educate them, what we call “education,” they’re going to take control — “they” being what Alexander Hamilton called the “great beast,” namely the people. The anti-democratic thrust of opinion in what are called democratic societies is really ferocious. And for good reason. Because the freer the society gets, the more dangerous the great beast becomes and the more you have to be careful to cage it somehow.
Vouchers to the Rescue
While maybe the situation isn’t as sinister as Chomsky would have us believe, he’s definitely onto something. The questions then arises: what can we do about it? Abolish public schools? Probably not a good idea—and even it is a good idea, it will never gain traction in present-time America. But we can do the next best thing which is, for reasons that will shortly become clear, to introduce choice into the schooling process. To see how and why we might do that, I recommend this cartoon introduction:
OK, that was cute—but how would school choice really work? Let’s go back to that Friedman essay I quoted from earlier. Talking about a voucher system, he says:
Governments could require a minimum level of education which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on “approved” educational services. Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an “approved” institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds. The role of the government would be limited to assuring that the schools met certain minimum standards such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants to assure that they maintain minimum sanitary standards. An excellent example of a program of this sort is the United States educational program for veterans after World War II. Each veteran who qualified was given a maximum sum per year that could be spent at any institution of his choice, provided it met certain minimum standards.
Freidman’s writing can be somewhat dense, so let’s unpack it. Imagine a swimming pool filled with everybody’s tax dollars. We all contributed our little part, and because there are so many of us, the pool fills up quickly. Now, the current situation, skipping all the details, is that the State takes the pooled money and puts it where they see fit. This centralized planning, for reasons discussed in the video above, doesn’t usually work. A much better system would be this: we all line up at the pool and take a bucket-full of cash. All our buckets are the same size, so we all get the same amount. The main caveat is that you can only put this money towards educational services. This is the big idea of vouchers. The state’s job would be to ensure that the money isn’t being spent towards religious schools and schools that don’t uphold commonly agreed upon educational standards.
The main benefactors of voucher programs would be the poor, who presently can’t afford private schooling. The need for alternative schooling is most poignantly seen in the inner-cities (see Waiting for Superman) where going to a public school is essentially a death-sentence for your mind. Vouchers would give parents and their children the freedom to choose the school best suited for their needs and desires. This way, schools have a much stronger incentive to oust bad teachers/administrators and reward the good ones. To reiterate: inter-school competition would ideally create conditions in which the lazy cannot stay lazy forever and inflexible beaurocrats must adapt to a competitive reality.
Sweden is the prototypical voucher success story, which you can (and should) read about on this Wiki page. They implemented a voucher system back in 1992 and haven’t looked back since. If you take away one thing from this post, let it be the following quote from Sweden’s former Minister of Education, Per Unckel: “Education is so important that you can’t just leave it to one producer, because we know from monopoly systems that they do not fulfill all wishes.”
This is a blog post, so I necessarily had to omit or brush over a lot of important things. I quoted at length from influential scholars and public figures because I wanted to give an air of legitimacy to the ideas of alternative schooling. Just from talking to people around town and at school, I’ve found that the current set-up is so deeply entrenched in the collective American mind that any (even mild) alternative is seen as an unachievable pipe-dream. But of course it isn’t. And I can only hope that our children—and their children’s children and so on—will be able to enjoy the freedoms of education choice.