Monday, January 16, 2006

John Stossel supports school choice

ABC correspondent and co-anchor of 20/20 John Stossel made waves with his special report entitled Stupid in America last Friday:

The Belgians did better because their schools are better. At age ten, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age fifteen, when students from forty countries are tested, the Americans place twenty-fifth. The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from countries that spend much less money on education.
The public school system is a disaster. Private schools in the US spend between $4,000 and $6,000 annually per student with better results than public schools that spent over $7,500 in 2000. A liberal think tank shows 19% of public education expenditures go to special needs children--if we chop that from the public school total (a magnanimous thing to do for the public schools, since extras for gifted children are included in this amount and because it inaccurately assumes that private schools have no special needs children of their own), we're just over $6,100. Taking $5,000 as a an overall average for private schools (the public school data goes from K-12 without distinguishing), public school still consumes over 20% more resources.

Much of the explanation for this disparity has an omerta on it. Because public school is "free", private schools are more greatly comprised of the children of the affluent than are public schools. IQ is both heriditary and correlated to income with statistical significance. Thus, smarter people tend to make more money, have smarter kids, and send them to private schools. In this way, the private schools have a leg up. Further, wealthy homes tend to provide an environment more conducive to social and cognitive development than do broken homes. The first reason is borne out of innate differences, something that is banned from the public debate to the public school advocate's loss.

Still, there is no question that public schools suffer from tremendous inefficiencies, as Stossel points out:

This should come as no surprise once you remember that public education in the USA is a government monopoly. Don't like your public school? Tough. The school is terrible? Tough. Your taxes fund that school regardless of whether it's good or bad. That's why government monopolies routinely fail their customers. Union-dominated monopolies are even worse.
Monopolies can only work if there are huge economies of scale and benign price controls determined by an accountable body. Utilities, for example, make sense as quasi-public companies because serving an entire metro area cuts costs that are then passed on to the consuming public. If there were twenty utility companies, each time you wanted to switch providers you would need to install a new gas line. Each company would have to charge a premium for gas to cover fixed costs that are only spread over 10% of the city rather than all of it.

But the current educational system does not benefit much from economies of scale. Schools are geographically disparate, each teacher has a different teaching style and methodology, and students have varying abilities and needs. To make further use of the utility example, assume that each customer has a preference on how long the gas sits in the pipeline before being sent to him: some want it to be held for a day, others for an hour, still more for a week, and so on. Having only one utility provider in this scenario is inefficient because specialization becomes difficult (leading to a "diversification discount" in business lingo). It makes more sense to have utility companies that specialize in providing gas held for a certain amount of time. Utility X will hold all of its gas for a day before sending it out to its customers, all of whom desire that holding duration.

Public education is set up as that one utility provider when the consuming public has an incredible diverse set of needs. But providers like Utility X, that would better serve the public, are at a tremendous disadvantage because the big provider is heavily subsidized by the government. If the government instead decided to issue vouchers to the public in lieu of funding the favored utility, those like Utility X would flourish and consumers would be much better served.

Competition would lead to rigorous college preparatory curricula for the brightest kids. They would not be held back by less endowed children who become frustrated and gain nothing from such material. Conversely, kids who would benefit more from vocational, practical learning would be able to receive it. Instead of putting someone destined to be a plumber into a calculus class that he'll fail, why not let him go to a trade school and learn the ins and outs of plumbing? Urchins with disciplinary problems would be able to be dealt with harshly or expelled from the school altogether, greatly facilitating the learning of the rest of the students. Especially gifted and ambitious children would be able to attend institutions with longer hours and over the summer. If a student's circadian rhythm is not conducive to rising at seven in the morning, he could attend schools that began later in the day. The potential benefits are endless.

Some of the affluent understandably worry that vouchers would allow inner-city trash to be shuttled into their children's schools. But standardized testing would screen out most of these kids, leaving only the sharpest to actually have the opportunity to use these 'elite' institutions. And tuitions could always be raised above the voucher amount if need be.

As it stands, the public is hardly being served. This scenario is virtually unthinkable in the private sector:
In New York City, it's "just about impossible" to fire a bad teacher, says schools chancellor Joel Klein. The new union contract offers slight relief, but it's still about 200 pages of bureaucracy. "We tolerate mediocrity," said Klein, because "people get paid the same, whether they're outstanding, average, or way below average." One teacher sent sexually oriented emails to "Cutie 101," his sixteen year old student. Klein couldn't fire him for years, "He hasn't taught, but we have had to pay him, because that's what's required under the contract."

In a private school, the teacher would have been terminated immediately--the school's reputation would suffer irreparably if he wasn't. The NEA vociferously opposes school choice because it would inject their plush occupation with market forces that would mandate better performance and harder work. The mantra that teachers do not make enough is ridiculous. First, an education degree is among the easiest to obtain in college and being an effective teacher does not require astronomical intelligence. The average teacher makes $45,000 annually for 200 days of work. At eight hours a day (Stossel reports that in the New York public school system the average workday is only six hours and forty minutes), that's more than $28 per hour (more than $56,000 a year if they worked a standard 2,000 hour year) in addition to plush benefits.

Secondly, the reason good teachers do not receive greater compensation is that there's no school choice in the first place. As Klein alluded to above, there would be a premium for effective teachers with vouchers, as schools would scramble to find the best staff so as to bring in students. Bloated administrative costs hamper teacher salaries further. In the public arena, only 52.2% of education personnel are actually teachers--in the private realm, it's over 80%. A more accurate statement of the current situation: Good teachers do not get paid enough, and bad teachers get paid too much. That is the nature of anti-merit unions and the foundation upon which communist economic theory rests upon. Perhaps the lumpenproletariat need to be shown what is going on in greener pastures:
In the Netherlands, nearly 76 percent of school-age children attend private schools with state money going to the chosen school. Sweden and Denmark also have liberal school choice policies with school funding following children whose parents choose private schools. In all three countries, student performance is higher than in the United States, where 15-year-olds scored twenty-first on mathematics literacy and twelfth in science, according to international performance audits.
Support for school choice is there. Some 64% of Americans favor school choice, and it is only moderately skewed by political affiliation (68% of Republican and 54% of Democrats favor). The Florida Supreme Court recently struck down a voucher program that had been functioning for six years, demonstrates how harmful the egalitarian myth is:
Five of the seven presiding justices ruled that school vouchers violate the "uniformity" clause of Florida's Constitution. Far from being an arcane and forgotten technicality, this clause was amended and reapproved by voters just eight years ago: It mandates, among other things, "a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education."
Every child in America attends school. It can't get any more diverse than that (well, immigration will accentuate this diversity further). Striving for uniformity is backwards. No Child Left Behind mandates that states bring their student body up to some state-set (see a conflict of interest here?) threshold. Meanwhile, students that are already able to meet NCLB requirements are inevitably going to suffer unchallenging classtime devoted to bringing the less endowed students up to snuff. The aspiration to insure that struggling students are literate and can perform basic arithmetic functions is a noble one that some schools would be devoted to with school choice, while the sharper kids to whom such work is a mundane waste of time would attend other schools that can best capitalize on their various aptitudes and interests. But if sharper students are forced to wait around while their peers with less intellectual ability are taught remedially, there's a big loss.

It's refreshing to see a network news figure take on a tough issue like this with the largest union in the country (2.7 million members) so adamantly opposed.


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