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How Can We Repair the American Education System to Build a Freer Society?

How Can We Transform the American Education System to Build a Freer Society?

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Prediction: In 20 years or so, Americans will look back on our present time as the start of a Great Awakening that fundamentally transformed education. We will shake our heads in disbelief that anyone ever thought the best way to educate was to assign children to a government school; force parents to pay twice if they chose a better alternative; and waste loads of cash on redundant staffing and nonessentials.

We will finally embrace the factors that make the greatest positive difference in student outcomes. Money isn’t one of them (been there, done that). Rules and mandates from bureaucrats aren’t among them either (been there, done that too). We will learn what we should never have forgotten—that the same market forces that make for success everywhere else work in education too: parental involvement, choice, competition, accountability, transparency, and incentive.

The virus from the government lab in Wuhan, subsidized with American government tax dollars, started the Great Awakening. Parents across the country objected to lockdowns and mask mandates that victimize children and defy the science. Education analyst Kerry McDonald reports, “The homeschooling rate in the US doubled in 2020, and tripled from its pre-pandemic level, as parents sought other options when confronted with prolonged school closures… Census Bureau data indicates that over 11 percent of US school-age children are currently homeschooling.”

Taxpayers are increasingly voting NO on taxes and tax hikes for some of the same pandemic-related reasons. But even more common, they are voting NO because of the left-wing indoctrination happening all too often in the classroom. Why do polls show that large numbers of high schoolers favor socialism and regard America as irredeemably racist and rotten? They’re not getting that nonsense at home.

Few issues are more important to the future of this country than the education of children. Some people say that’s why it should be delivered by a government monopoly. But national defense is important too, and we don’t get our planes, tanks and guns from government-owned collective farms. We choose among private, competing providers.

If we did food the way we do education, we’d have government farms producing food for sale in government grocery stores. You’d be assigned to one and that’s where you would have to buy your groceries. You could patronize a different store, but for the crime of wanting something better for your family, you’d have to submit to the penalty of paying twice. Your assigned government store would get your money whether you shopped there or not, and you’d pay for a lifetime.

If you wanted to raise objections to what was offered on the shelves, you’d have to wait until the next election, mount an expensive campaign, and cross your fingers. Or you could line up at boring meetings while condescending officials make you feel anti-social just for showing up. You might be labeled a “domestic terrorist” for asking tough questions. No thanks.

Americans understood the potent power of choice and competition, left food to the marketplace, and became the best-fed people on the planet. They are now coming to understand, thankfully, that the same principles can apply once again to education. 

When Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman first advanced the concept of educational vouchers nearly half a century ago, he was a voice in the wilderness. Few people heard his call and fewer still took him seriously. The overwhelming majority of Americans had become accustomed to government assigning their children to government schools by virtue of their residence, and even when they were unhappy with the results they rarely thought of “school choice” as a solution. 

But ideas, as Richard Weaver put it, have consequences. Ideas, as Victor Hugo said 100 years earlier, are more powerful than all the armies of the world. They spur revolutions in the political, social, and economic landscape. They change the course of history. They bring down Berlin Walls and whole empires. They take the unmovable and they move it.

A presidential commission awakened the nation in 1983 with this alarming declaration: “If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” In the decades since, we’ve more than doubled per-pupil spending in government schools and the results are dismal.

The ideas of one-size-fits-all or government-knows-best or monopoly-gets-better-results-than-competition are bankrupt. The deplorable outcome of those empty notions is defended by the vested interests whose pockets are lined by the status quo. Parents, taxpayers, and others who are serious about educational quality know better. 

The empowerment and transformation of parents into active agents is the foundation of educational choice theory. It’s a fact of life that as human beings, we take a greater interest in those things over which we have some power of discretion than in those things we feel relatively helpless to affect.  That’s why many people spend more time shopping for the car they want—visiting dealership showrooms and comparing prices and features—than they spend in picking the right schools for their children. 

Some parents shop around now. The very wealthy have always had school choice. For them, the price of admission to a good public school may be merely the cost of a moving van and a nice, big house.  Or because they can afford to, they will simply pay twice—once in private school tuition and then in taxes for the public system they can reject. 

A surprising number of poor, inner-city families opt for nonpublic alternatives too, or charter schools, but only at enormous sacrifice.  Sadly for millions of low-income Americans, education for their children means being stuck with failing and dangerous public schools that spend too much to achieve too little.

Skeptics say that in an educational system that allows for parental choice, the more thoughtful and involved parents may opt out of a particular school, leaving behind to languish in despair the children of less caring parents. But this ignores the synergy that happens when choice and competition are at work. I like to put it this way: It takes only a few patrons to leave the restaurant for the chef to get the message to improve the menu. In other words, choice benefits everybody including those who choose not to fully employ it themselves. That’s the magic that has made American free markets the envy of the world. Why is it that we trust parents in so many areas except education? 

In our relatively free society, parents decide what foods their children will eat and what foods they will avoid. They decide with whom their children will play, how much television they will watch, and how much homework they will do. The same parents decide which physicians will treat their children’s injuries, which dentists will check their teeth, and which babysitters will care for them in their absence. 

As their children grow, these parents will help them decide which clubs, churches, and organizations to join and which courses of study to pursue. These parents exercise choice when it comes to preschool and higher education, and no one argues that using a government assignment system would make our preschools or colleges better. And yet, many employed by the government school establishment tell us that these very same parents cannot be trusted with choice for grades 1 through 12.  That’s nothing more than self-serving nonsense, and parents are waking up to it.

The day is coming when instead of funding schools, we’ll fund students. We’ll figuratively strap the money to their backs and let them redeem it at the schools of their parents’ choosing. We may even go a step further and separate school from state altogether. And in our major inner cities especially, we’ll wonder why we endured so much costly and lousy education for so long.

Lawrence writes a weekly op-ed for El American. He is President Emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Atlanta, Georgia; and is the author of “Real heroes: inspiring true stories of courage, character, and conviction“ and the best-seller “Was Jesus a Socialist?“ //
Lawrence escribe un artículo de opinión semanal para El American. Es presidente emérito de la Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) en Atlanta, Georgia; y es el autor de “Héroes reales: inspirando historias reales de coraje, carácter y convicción” y el best-seller “¿Fue Jesús un socialista?”