Thursday, March 16, 2006

Competition Will Fix Public Education

American education is a mess. In the last three posts I tried to explain the scope of the problem and how we got there. It’s a sad story dating from the radical liberal movement of the 1960s, aided and abetted by government employee unions and the Democratic Party. We have two choices: (1) Do nothing and the system will gradually strangle the competitiveness from the American worker; or (2) Fix it. I prefer the second option.

But the problem is so huge, so pervasive, that we should begin with a set of objectives, before deciding what to do. Let’s aim before we shoot. I think what we want is an educational system that provides the tools needed for success to every American child. I also require efficiency since the cost is borne by all of us whether or not we currently benefit from the system. It’s fairly simple, but every reform should be tested against those goals.

And there are many barriers. From my good friend Helen who is a college teacher: "Teachers overseas get respect - students would not think of going to class with their homework undone or cursing at the teacher when he or she tries to correct behavior!! Over 50% of students in American schools DON'T DO HOMEWORK and many threaten their teachers with law suits or bodily harm. Respect for teachers is missing in the U.S. A teacher with eight years experience and a master's degree gets a salary of about $50,000 a year in Palos Verdes. Furthermore, teachers are REQUIRED to join the union with no say as to how the money is spent!"

I agree with Helen that discipline, respect, standards, salaries and union control are impediments to our goal of efficient, high quality education. Our solution must address all of these issues. As this is a complex and difficult problem, I ask that you bear with me while I roll out a proposal that will, I hope, address all segments of the problem.

My solution is not new, being first popularized by Milton Friedman in 1955. In a seminal paper called “The Role of Government in Education,” Friedman acknowledged that government intervention tends not to work very well. He suggested that if we wish to fund public education then it is far better to subsidize the consumer rather than the producer, since the latter creates a top-down system that is unresponsive and inefficient. Friedman said to open up the system to the free market principles of transparency, competition and reduced regulation. His mechanism: Vouchers that parents could use at any school of their choice.

In his “Stupid in America” TV special, John Stossel describes foreign countries that have already tried this approach with great success. In Belgium, for example, the government funds education—at any school—but if the school can't attract students, it goes out of business. Belgian school Principal Kaat Vandensavel told us, “If we don't offer parents what they want for their child, they won't come to our school.” She constantly improves the teaching, “You can't afford 10 teachers out of 160 that don't do their work, because the clients will know, and won't come to you again.”

Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby told Stossel: That's normal in Western Europe. If schools don't perform well, a parent would never be trapped in that school in the same way you could be trapped in the U.S. Hoxby noted that Milwaukee's private school vouchers made the nearby public schools change for the better. Public school principals were allowed to have a lot more autonomy," she said, "They counseled teachers out of teaching altogether who really weren't performing or showing up on the job -- they put in new back to basics curricula in some primary schools that really needed that so that reading skills and math skills would go up.

Still the Milwaukee experiment is under fire from the teacher’s unions. When the program was set up in 1995, it was limited to 15% of the Milwaukee public school enrollment who received $6,351 scholarships compared to the roughly $11,000 that is spent in the public schools. Demand for the program is so high that many are turned away, yet the unions are denying any increase in the 15% limit. Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, supports the teacher’s unions who have their own answer to the collapse of public education in the inner cities: ship truckloads of money to poorer districts in the name of social justice. But many Milwaukee parents aren't buying that. They have painfully learned that more money spent on a failed system does not produce better education. They want to make their own decisions about their children's future.

Ironically, this is the sort of initiative that Democrats should champion. The Democratic Party claims to be the “voice of the voiceless.” The voiceless would benefit most from vouchers, and if you ask the voiceless they are all in favor of vouchers. The poor don’t have the option of sending their children to expensive private schools or of moving to a suburb with good public schools.

Of my friends in Palos Verdes, most moved here for the schools. And the federal income tax system helped us make this choice. Take the median $1 million house with an $800,000 mortgage at six percent and property taxes of $10,000. That median family will receive a nice tax deduction of $58,000, potentially leading to a refund of $20,000, all for choosing to send their kids to excellent public schools.

So, try to imagine what would happen if a universal voucher system were enacted. In Palos Verdes, not too much would change. But in the inner city, private schools would spring up to compete for the $10,000 vouchers. If I opened such a school, I would advertise discipline in the classroom, respect for teachers and high standards. I would recruit excellent teachers with the promise of higher salaries, a pleasant working environment and no unions.

How would I make it work? Parents who wanted to send their kids to my school would have to make a commitment to discipline, respect and homework. They would be held accountable for their children’s performance. Discipline problems or lack of effort would lead to expulsion. The financial part would be easy. Unlike the California K-12 system where nearly half of the employees are not teachers, my school would direct 80-90% of the funding to the classroom where teachers could be paid $75,000 to $100,000.

Administrators and bureaucrats would be in short supply. As for regulations, my teachers would be required to have at minimum a good bachelor’s degree in the subject they teach, but teaching credentials would not be required. My Principal would be responsible for hiring the best and firing the inadequate, just like in private business.

I’m convinced that my school would be flooded with applications and I would have a large supply of excellent teachers to choose from. Many would come from industry and the professions. We would be a huge success, if only the politicians would give us a chance.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have hit the nail on the head -who makes the decision as to which school to send their child? The parents! That is the key to good education.

Helen

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill,
Excellent!!

Marie

10:01 AM  
Blogger fetching jen said...

I blame the Feminazis! And the teachers unions. When the focus is on how to prevent teachers from doing any more than just barely enough, instead on the student (i.e. the client), failure is bound to happen.

Problem is in CA, unions run this state and libs are terrified of competition and vouchers. Until we can get a voucher program statewide, we'll be stuck with lousy teachers who don't want to teach, lousy teachers who honor their union first.

The "It's all about me" mentality is taking our society apart. That and the Feminazis.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dad,

I would send Christy to your school and you would be happy to have her because she has a parent who is 100% involved. I go to all conferences and open houses - I have the email address and phone number of every teacher she has had (and I use them)! I check homework and make sure she is prepared. I have taught her to respect her teachers and that she is there to learn.

Wow... competent teachers and involved parents... what a concept!

~ Love, Carolynne

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a first year teacher and know very little about it.

Unfortunately, your solution would work for the ones that care a lot(parents), but not for the majority of the students in the LA unified system. They just don't care. They want their kids out of their domain and become someone else's problem. On the other hand, we need to do something. It is a crisis. thus, maybe what you are suggesting would help.

Bob

11:37 AM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Bob,
You know way more about LA Unified than I do. But I have a perhaps naive optimism that if "most" parents were given the opportunity they would try to give their kids a better chance. Most now simply give up. And the ones who suffer from the chaos that exists are the good kids who want to learn but are ignored because all the attention must be focussed on the trouble makers. At least that group of good kids will have a better chance if they are able to matriculate in a school with discipline, respect for teachers and standards. They and their parents deserve that chance. Why do we deny them?
Bill

11:38 AM  

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