The Problem with Public Education

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 Problem

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..

7 thoughts on “The Problem with Public Education

  1. Man, talk about some general assertions with no evidence whatsoever offered. (I write as the husband of a recently retired–after 43 years–public school special ed teacher.) Let me look at just three of your claims. First this:

    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. American perform below average in science and math compared to other developed countries.

    Those other countries by and large also have mainly public schools supported by public money, but rather than the crazy quilt patchwork imposed by “local control” in the U.S., they have national standards for curricula and teacher certification. Show me one of those other countries that depends mainly on private schools.

    Oh, and I can’t forget this one:

    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.

    Recall that the goal of those who founded the public school system in the U.S. was to create an informed citizenry. The success of a democracy depends on some shared base of knowledge and values. But your proposal would allow–indeed it would encourage–splintering. Absent a national curriculum and certification, your system would generate no less of a patchwork of schools than we have now, and would enable–encourage!–the institutionalization of reality denial and ignorance in a substantial portion of the electorate. That’s a recipe for the failure of constitutional democracy.

    But this one is the killer:

    This system might require additional caveats like a standardized test, but overall it seems to be the option most likely to produce favorable results.

    But that’s exactly where the U.S. has gone under NCLB. Since sanctions on individual schools and principals–e.g., loss of funds, loss of control–are now based on standardized test scores, the use of standardized tests as measures of ‘success’ has incentivized teaching to the test to the exclusion of ‘teaching to the student.’ The use of standardized tests as measures of success would instantly eliminate all your hoped-for advantageous outcomes.

    • I think you may be right. Personally I’m not at all against government programs, if they can be shown to work. It’s clear that for many countries, a public school system DOES produce favorable results, but for other countries, public schooling doesn’t seem to be working. A great example would be to compare between Finland and Mexico. Both have federal Ministries of Education (with none of the localization present in the US), and yet Finnish science and math performance is the highest in the world while Mexican performance is the lowest. Mexico’s teacher-student ratios are ridiculously high, even with the low teaching certification standards. If they made it harder to become a teacher, it’s likely that their problems would get worse.

      Yes, public schools may be a good way of achieving the goal of “informed citizenry,” but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way of achieving it. It could even be the most effective way, but that remains to be shown, for the United States at least. Sweden, for example, has used a voucher system for more than a decade, and even though standards in some subjects have fallen slightly, the system overall seems to be working, especially in science, social studies, and the arts. Ireland has also adopted an education program loosely based on the voucher system and has seen improvement in overall standards.

      In regards to the inanity of NCLB, I’m in 100% agreement with you. I believe I only said that the voucher system MIGHT require a standardized test. However, I don’t see how this would be different from having national standards. I’m not suggesting that each student MUST pass a test or else. Rather, a simple aptitude test would be a good way for potential employers to get a general idea of a student’s academic proficiency in whichever areas are relevant to their business.

      All-in-all, you may indeed be right that the best solution would be to improve our current education system rather than adopt a new one. I’m merely of the opinion that there are alternatives to a national public education system that might also accomplish the same intended goals, with the added benefit of allowing more choices and less government intervention. Of course, no option is without its drawbacks.

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