My musings on different political topics relevant to America today.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Misplaced Debate on Education

The American education system at the high school level is ridiculously archaic and backward.  There is no other way to say it.  The last time we were ranked compared to other countries, we were 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics (The US Can Learn From Other Countries Education Systems).  We are the most prosperous and wealthy nation on earth yet our high school education ranks only in the middle of developed countries.  There truly is no excuse for this.  America must find a way to fix this pathetic predicament.  Our schools do fine at the elementary level, but by highschool they suffer terribly.  This altogether makes no sense since the good ol' U.S. of A. rocks with our colleges.  I counted, and out of the top 100 colleges, 31 are in the United States (according to U.S. News World's Best Universities 2011).  We are not slouching at the college level, but for some reason at the level between elementary and college we suck.  We need to find out why, and then we need to fix it.

Yet, the debate has been entirely misplaced.  On one hand, you have liberals who say (as always), "Spend! Spend! Spend!" And you have conservatives who simply turn a blind eye to the problems of our education system.  Their kid after all is getting a great education, at their great expensive school district or Private Christian School.  Why care about the vast majority which is getting a poor education when your child has it fine? Both responses are wrong.  I will explain why.

Too often this is the focus of our education
debate.  The focus should be on structural
reform, not dollars spent.
Liberals will tell you that we simply do not spend enough on education.  This is bullshit.  We spend on average per child more than any other country in the world.  According to a study done at USC (University of Southern California), America spends an average of $7,743 per student.  Meanwhile, the 2nd highest spender was the UK at 5,834.  Japan Spent on average only $3,756 per child! We spend the most but get worse results.  The highest ranked in math test scores spent, Finland, scored 548 out of 600 on average while Finland spent on average $5,653.  Compare that to the average U.S. score of 474 out of 600, and we pour far more money into our kids!  Its even more bizarre to think that Japan scored on average 523 out of 600 spending as little as they did! The problem is clearly not the amount of spending, then what is it? (Feel free to check out the website I drew these facts from! It has a nifty diagram explaining it all)

Meanwhile, more often than not, your conservatives either opt out or think their is nothing wrong with it.  Their response will depend on their financial means.  If they do not have much money and are in a poor school district, they will opt for homeschool.  If they do have money and are in a poor school district, they will opt for private school.  If they have money and are in a great top of the line best 10% what have you school district, they will send their kids there and wonder why anyone could ever think our education system is bad.  I will tell you why!  Only you and 10% of the nation can get that education.  Those who happen to live in the great school districts (which also happen to be the most expensive neighborhoods, because our education is payed through property taxes), will indeed get a great expensive education.  However everyone else who cannot afford to live in those neighborhoods will not.  

The reason this is the case, is because the whole educational infrastructure is set up that way.  Basing it on property taxes has placed a new hidden price tag on your home.  It is no longer just a home, it is also your source for education. Bigger is always better in other words.  Big house = big education.  The rich of course do not mind it being that way, therefore they have no incentive to change it.  However everyone else should have a problem with this.  Just because education has been provided traditionally via property taxes does not mean it has to be that way.  It does not have to be that way, and it should not be that way.  Effectively it has made your education dependent on how expensive of a neighborhood you live in, and that is just wrong.

While there are other propositions for structural reform, like pouring property taxes into a collective state fund that distributes the fund equitably through the school districts, I prefer a different reform.  I believe that ultimately a voucher system would be more fair and more efficient.  Collectivizing funds would create the most equitable system, but it would do nothing to improve efficiency.  We need to get more bang for our buck, and a voucher system would allow that.  

A Voucher would allow you to pick your school,
much as a gift card allows you to pick your gift.
A voucher system would give each family a state-sponsored voucher of x dollars, which then can be spent on any school the family wishes.  Schools would be allowed to compete for students.  Competition in turn, would help force schools to weed out stupid practices that are preventing our kids from receiving the best education.  You could still have standardized tests, but allow the schools to introduce new innovative approaches to learning that could cut costs and boost student performance.  If schools are not doing their best to innovate, parents will elect to put their kids elsewhere.  Its standard economics 101, and it will transform education into a dynamic enterprise if initiated.

There are a few problems people have addressed, which I shall attempt to resolve.  First, will schools be allowed to charge what they want?  They is a tough question.  If you want it to be more equitable, no.  If you want more efficiency, yes. Markets operate most efficiently when it is allowed to determine the price.  If we want to be at the forefront of innovating education, we will have to allow schools to charge different rates.  However, personally I do not like the idea of people not being able to attend a school because they cannot afford it.  This would inevitably lead to the same inequitable education system we had before.  Yes, it would be more efficient and everyone would benefit as a result, however it will still shut out students out of great schools.  Instead, I would prefer a slightly more equitable in the middle approach where each school has the same price tag (the voucher price), but then students can perhaps purchase special education packages within that school.  

Another question is how much leeway schools will have to accept and reject students? I believe obviously that no discrimination should be allowed in the system.  I do not even believe that religious schools should be allowed to join the system and discriminate who they let in based on religious affiliation.  Schools can of course reject the voucher system, but then parents will not be able to utilize their voucher when sending students there.  This does not mean schools cannot choose who to let in, but they will only be allowed to based off of academic or extracurricular achievement, not on any characteristics that are not merit based.  

Nevertheless these are all particulars.  The system itself would produce astounding results if allowed to work.  Now, that assumes people allow it to work.  There are things the government cannot do if it wishes the voucher system to succeed.  It cannot tell schools what to do.  It can have standardized tests by which people can gauge a school's performance versus others, but it should not be allowed to determine curriculum for schools or anything else education related that would promote stagnation and hinder innovation.  In addition, all schools must be eligible for the voucher system if they agree to certain limited criteria, such as non discrimination.  They includes religious institutions.  Excluding schools based off their teachings will stifle innovation.  Indeed, that is another bonus I see coming from this.  The government would no longer have a monopoly on our kids minds.  It has with the current system, since it tells schools what they can and cannot teach.  It would not with my ideal voucher system.  Ideas will perish or thrive based on how plausible they are, not from a government enforced proliferation or suffocation.

Just think about it, we already allow this at the college level, yet to an even greater extent.  So why not allow it at the high school level? What we have been doing is clearly not working.  More money will not fix it, the problem is clearly structural.  While the structural change I propose would not in itself reform education, it would create a more conducive innovative and competitive atmosphere where education will be more open to creativity and change, instead of the stagnant ailing beast it is today.  

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