Sunday, February 5, 2012

American Values and Prosperity, Free Choice and Educational Monopolies

Education is the key to America's prosperity and future well being. Nothing profound or controversial about that statement.

We value an individual's freedom to choose as much for how it benefits our overall society as for how much it improves that individual's quality of life. The more freedom we each enjoy to pursue our dreams, the more prosperous our overall American society will become. Nothing especially profound or controversial about that statement either.

Why then do we consider it so exceptional when an elected official suggests more freedom of choice when it comes to one's education in America? Could it be that the teachers unions and the politicians believe that government monopolies are preferable to competition?

Jindal's Education Moon Shot describes the Governor's proposal to reform Louisiana's K-12 educational system:

"Mr. Jindal wants to create America's largest school voucher program, broadest parental choice system, and toughest teacher accountability regime—all in one legislative session. Any one of those would be a big win, but all three could make the state the first to effectively dismantle a public education monopoly.

Louisiana is already one of 12 states (including Washington, D.C.) that offer school vouchers, but its program benefits fewer than 2,000 students in New Orleans. Governor Jindal would extend eligibility to any low-income student whose school gets a C, D or F grade from state administrators. That's almost 400,000 students—a bit more than half the statewide population—who could escape failing schools for private or virtual schools, career-based programs or institutions of higher education.

Funding for these vouchers ("scholarships" is the poll-tested term) would come not from a new fund, as in New Orleans, but from what the state already spends on public education per capita. So every student leaving a failing school would take about $8,500 (on average) with him, hitting the bureaucracy where it hurts. This is called competition, that crucial quality missing where monopolies reign.

Post-Katrina New Orleans is already the nation's leading charter-school zone, with 80% of city students enrolled, academic performance improving dramatically, and plans to go all-charter by 2013. To spread the model statewide, the Governor would create new regional boards for authorizing charters and offer fast-track authorization to high-performing operators such as KIPP. He'd also give charters the same access to public facilities as traditional public schools.

As for tenure, Mr. Jindal would grant it only to teachers who are rated "highly effective" five years in a row, meaning the top 10% of performers. And tenure wouldn't equal lifetime protection: A tenured teacher who rates in the bottom 10% ("ineffective") in any year would return to probationary status. Ineffective teachers would receive no pay raise. Louisiana would also ban the "last in, first out" practice under which younger teachers are dismissed first, regardless of performance.

No points for guessing where the teachers unions stand on all this. The real problem is that "the revenue base is inadequate," says Steve Monaghan of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers—though spending doesn't correlate with academic improvement, and in any case Mr. Jindal has increased education spending by 10% since 2008.

At least Mr. Monaghan is guilty only of ignoring evidence. Louisiana Association of Educators leader Michael Walker Jones took to insulting Bayou State parents: "If I'm a parent in poverty I have no clue because I'm trying to struggle and live day to day," said Mr. Jones of parental choice. How's that for faith in self-government?"

Now let's look at the power of teachers unions in New York City. See Notable & Quotable:

"They have trouble with spelling, grammar and showing up to class on time—and we're not talking about the students.

The city tried to expel 26 teachers from the classroom last year for gross incompetence—such as English teachers who couldn't write or speak the language properly.

But officials maintain that stringent union rules prohibited them from succeeding in just half those cases—even when hearing officers actually agreed with the principals' assessments.

That's because the city has to prove not only that the teachers can't do their jobs but also that they have no shot of ever improving."

If we truly value a quality education as an essential ingredient of an advancing society, why don't we act that way? Why do we keep shortchanging young people by forcing them to attend schools that they would prefer not to attend? Why don't we allow them to pick the school they attend and send the tax dollars already paid to their school of choice?

Now let's consider the taxpayer.

If a taxpayer wants his tax dollars for education to go for the support of student A, why shouldn't the taxpayer be free to make that choice and direct those dollars accordingly? And why shouldn't student A and his parents be able to select what school they wish student A to attend?

In other words, each year we spend ~$10,000 per student on public education. Why can't we permit students and their parents to decide where to spend that ~$10,000?

Government schools are poorly performing monopolies. In large part that's because they are just that--monopolies. Monopolies preempt competition.

That invariably results in a lower quality of education for students attending those monopolistic public schools. The lack of competition thwarts meaningful broad based progress. Too many students graduate with a piece of paper and not an education.

Enabling parental choice and competition would also result in an immediate upgrading of our public schools as the previous monopolies would either become competitive or closed due to lack of interest by "customers"-- the newly empowered free-to-choose students and parents.

In either case, our education system would improve dramatically and immediately as competition entered the education equation.

And the cost to taxpayers of this societal investment in a world class educational system would be absolutely zero compared to what we're currently spending.

Of course, teachers unions and many government politicians wouldn't like the introduction of competition into education. But my question is this.

Why should the monopolies be permitted to continue to do great harm to our American society by controlling the nation's educational system?

It's time to put freedom of choice into education and end the monopoly of government schools.

Monopolies suck. Politics sucks. And teachers unions suck, too.

Competition and free choice are the only genuine answers to our educational ills.

Thanks. Bob.

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