The issue of public education is a bit more personal to me than most other policy issues for several reasons. (1) I am the product of public school education, (2) my mother is a public school teacher, and (3) I plan on becoming a public school teacher in the near future.
Nowadays it seems common knowledge that if the government is obligated to provide all U.S. citizens with an education, it should do so through a government-controlled public education system, paid for by taxpayers. However, that conclusion does not necessarily follow.
The idea of public schools raises several issues.
First, it makes competition between schools nearly impossible, thus hindering overall education standards from improving. Private schools become fewer and farther between and cater only to the well-off by offering different education standards, better teacher-student ratios, better classroom resources, and more extra-curricular programs. Public schools are, more often than not, underfunded and understaffed in comparison, but are the only option for low-income families.
Second, it makes education standards a matter of public opinion. This has recently been most apparent with the insane Social Studies curriculum changes voted on by the Texas school board, but has been seen in nearly every academic field from English to Biology. If the majority of the voting public (or the loudest minority) wants certain things taught (like Intelligent Design alongside evolution) or certain materials removed (like Huxley’s Brave New World, or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense), it’ll happen, regardless of how ridiculous such a notion is to sane, rational people. And these changes will affect the overwhelming majority of students. Public education, in this sense, becomes a form of government thought-control.
Third, public schooling means that teachers are essentially government employees, who are far more exempt from accountability than private school teachers. If a private school teacher isn’t performing, he or she is fired. If a public school teacher isn’t performing, he or she is kept on government payroll because of their union ties and degrees. This became a major issue in Florida because of the recent merit-pay bill vetoed by Governor Crist.
Teachers need to be held accountable if an educational institution is to get better. Period. If you’re a shitty teacher, it doesn’t matter whether or not you went to college an extra two years… you should be fired. No one is impressed by a Master’s degree if you don’t possess the skills necessary to do your job properly. This is a basic fact of life.
Fourth, in practice, public schools produce mediocre results at best, and this fact has been obvious for many years, with almost no change whatsoever. Some students do well in a public school setting (though it’s arguable that these students may have done well despite public schooling rather than because of it), but the statistics speak for themselves. Americans perform below average in science and math compared to other developed countries. Our geography scores are even poorer.
Fifth, public schools push only one kind of learning on all pupils, and offers no variety. This may change in the future, of course, thanks to some recent promising experiments in public schooling. But the use of taxpayer monies for such experimentation makes these feats less frequent. The result is that kids are sent to the same classrooms to be taught by the same teachers and with the same books, regardless of whether or not this approach is effective for all students.
A Libertarian Solution
If we accept the premise that the government should provide its citizens with access to an education (and I do), the government can accomplish this goal by other means. Personally, I would dismantle the public school system and replace it with another much simpler program to help offset individual education costs.
The voucher system seems to make the most sense to me, assuming that this system is intended to replace public schooling. Under this system, the government, rather than paying for schools and teachers, would instead provide parents with a voucher equal to the cost of their child’s public education. All schools would essentially become private schools capable of redeeming these vouchers for government funds, and they would decide their own curricula, faculties, student transportation, extra-curricular activities, and textbooks however they see fit.
First, this would give each school incentive to make smart hiring decisions, and not merely keep paying teachers who can’t teach, just because they have a degree. It would also give schools an incentive to provide the best education standards possible, to encourage parents to choose one school over another.
It would also lower the overall costs of private schooling. Some of the more expensive private schools would still cater to the wealthy, but they’d have to lower their prices considerably due to the competition from the sheer proliferation of private schooling options.
Third, it would give parents options. This would solve the problem of public-opinion curricula, since parents who don’t want their children to learn about evolution could simply send them to a school that doesn’t teach it, while other schools could still offer a rich curriculum that teaches actual facts. It would also provide an alternative for pupils who struggle with the traditional teacher-and-large-classroom learning methodology, as there would inevitably be schools that set up their curricula and classes to appeal to this demographic.
This system might require additional caveats like a standardized test, but overall it seems to be the option most likely to produce favorable results.
Disagree? Did I miss something? Let me know by leaving a comment..