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Education in America: Why Both School Choice and Improvements in Public Education Are Needed

(Cross-posted from Poligazette)

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I just finished reading Michael van der Galien’s article here at Poligazette and at Hot Air’s Green Room on the Obama administration’s plans to spend over $100 billion from the stimulus bill on education reform.  I’ve also read Andrew J. Rotherham’s article at US News where he suggests the efforts the administration are putting forth are not enough:

The recent economic stimulus bill contains more than $100 billon in education spending, a historic investment equal to about 16 percent of the nation’s annual expenditures on public elementary and secondary schools

. In exchange, states are required to report more information about student performance and make “assurances” that they will work to improve schools. However, the law requires little in the way of actual changes.

Michael criticizes Rotherham:

Rothberg [sic] does not actually offer a solution – that would be taking responsibility and that is of course above the good man – but he implies that more government interference is the answer. [...]

[...] not more money nor government interference but less of both is needed to improve American schools. They suffer not from too little money and too few checks, but from a tremendous lack of competition. It has to become easier for parents to send their children to private schools: this will help those students receive a better education, and research shows it helps the public school they left behind improve as well, because teachers feel pressure to improve the quality of their work if they want to keep their students (and they do).

I agree with Rotherham that the bill doesn’t do enough to make actual reforms.  It’s basically a continuation of No Child Left Behind.  Money while collecting information does little to actually change anything.

However, I also agree with Michael that Rotherham doesn’t suggest any solutions himself.  Conversely, I disagree with Michael that school choice is the ultimate solution to the education problem.  The problems with education in America are multi-pronged and will require a multi-pronged solution of which school choice is just one part.

I have a couple problems with school choice.  The first: 306 million people.  As of this writing, that’s roughly the current estimate of the United States population.  If we were to close every public school tomorrow, as I know every purist libertarian would love to do, there are not enough private schools to take everybody.  It would take years, perhaps decades, to change the system to private, and I think they know it.  So most conservatives seem to prefer a hybrid private-public system, as we see with colleges and universities.

Problem number two involves cost.  While sending kids to parochial schools is often easy enough – some states partially or fully fund them – not everyone can the do other option: private schools.  So the conservative solution is vouchers.  The idea is that you’d be able to take your tax money that would normally be spent on public schools and apply it toward the private school.

Here’s the problem: A fully implemented voucher system isn’t going to pay for everything.  I mean, even in higher education, not even need-based financial aid does that.  Yes, initially it may pay it all for some people, but you’re still going to end up with student loans that must be paid back.  Private schools typically cost several or perhaps tens of thousand dollars per year.  With public schools, everyone contributes to the pool, which then gets distributed to school systems.  So nobody actually pays the full price for their own children.  Yes, you can use the tax money that would go toward the local public schools for private schools, but the parents will end up having to foot at least some of the bill.

I think conservatives need to realize that this is 2009, not 1789, or even the early 1800s.  Public schooling has been around for a long time.  It’s not going away, and saying “voucher, voucher, voucher” over and over is not going to change that.  Liberals, meanwhile, need to accept that school choice is a necessary component of reforming education.  It’s parents who should decide where their children go to school, not the state, and if the education a child is getting isn’t good enough, they should be allowed to go elsewhere.  Yet, it’s not going to cover everybody, and while the idea of competing schools spurring improvement in public schools is a great idea, improvement costs money.  It’s not just going to happen automatically.

At the same time, throwing money at the problem isn’t going to be what does it.  The attack must be multi-faceted.  I’m talking about teachers who actually know what they’re doing, and they should be paid through meritocratic means.  But there’s more.  The information they’re teaching needs to be up to date.  Even in my own home of Connecticut, “the richest state in the nation,” I’ve had textbooks from the ’70s, even the ’60s, in my earlier years.  So some of the science or history that was well known in the outside world while I was in primary school was not actually correct in the books I was reading.  Only years later did I learn the real facts.

Then there are districts that need more help than others, so yes, money will have to be spent, if only to give them better texts.  It’s secondhand knowledge, but a friend of a friend started work at a New York City school full of underprivileged children a couple years ago.  From my understanding, the school was (and probably still is) a mess.  That’s the kind of district that needs the most help.

So I think the biggest task is going to be deciding where that $100 billion needs to go the most.  It is here that all that great information gathered by the No Child Left Behind mandate can be used.  The government knows the schools that are doing bad, so the money can be appropriated along those lines.  How does the federal government decide how much money is needed for certain districts?  That’s the part that needs to be left up the individual states.  They should be instructed to come up with a plan to help those struggling districts, along with how much money they’ll need to do it.

Now, I’m not saying that they’ll have to submit these plans to the federal government for approval.  This would be the wrong way to go about things, since every state will have certain areas where their students need to improve.  Yet, they’ll need to have a plan in order to figure out how much money is required.  After all, $100 billion is a small part of the overall budget, and it’ll need to be spread around to all the struggling districts.  Therefore, the plans should be cost effective.  Maybe not every student is going to get their own textbook, but something is better than nothing.

I believe that to fix all the problems in the public school system, much more than $100 billion is going to be needed.  Yet more importantly it’s going to take time.  It’s something that might take a decade or more, and that’s only if the country actually gets serious about it.  It’ll take longer to complete the task if they don’t.  Since we all know how serious politicians actually are in daily life, other options must be considered.  School choice is one of those options.  If parent’s are unhappy with the education their child is getting, they should be able to pull their child out of that school system and put them somewhere else.  Vouchers are a decent application of that goal.  Perhaps if more and more children start going to private schools it will force states and the federal government to pay attention to the problems facing public schools.

However, because private schools are simply not within reach for some families, we cannot simply ignore our public schools, and hope that they will simply fix themselves if more and more students leave the system.  Competition quickly becomes rather one-sided if an entity doesn’t have money to make the improvements it needs to become better.  So money must be spent on public schools to improve what instructional materials they have, but teachers also must be good as well.  An accurate textbook will only take students so far, after all.

Reforming education must not be made victim to one-track thinking from either side of the political spectrum because no one solution is the answer.  In the end, it’s going to take an all-of-the-above approach to keep America on track with the other countries of the world.

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