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We all want better K-12 education in the U.S., which has an extremely uneven — even dismal — record of student outcomes. The U.S. ranks below the OECD average in both math and science scores, despite spending 35% more per student than the OECD average. Yet there is a faction that leaps to the defense of the status quo with such viciousness that its members deride sensible reform proposals as classist and racist. Then, of course, they call for additional spending! These antics reveal their self-interest in doubling down on the status quo.

An obvious starting point for reform, and one that would save taxpayers roughly $40 billion (K-12), is to dismantle a federal education bureaucracy that adds little value to educational outcomes. Another element is expanding the set of alternatives available to parents over the way their children are educated. Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s Secretary of Education, favors both of these steps as general principles, though she lacks direct control over either, especially school choice.

Both of these steps are fiercely resisted by the public educational establishment and teachers unions. And no wonder! Who wants to lose their privileged monopoly power over a local market? The public school establishment does not wish to be troubled by demands that schools respond to competitive forces, that teachers be rewarded based on performance, or that schools should be answerable to parents and taxpayers. As for the federal role, the public school cartel seems to welcome federal money, even if it means that the feds impose control in the process.


For those skeptical of reforming public schools by allowing choice, Don Boudreaux proposed a useful thought experiment that I discussed in my earlier post “Public Monopolists Say Don’t Be Choosy“. It examines a hypothetical world in which supermarkets are structured like public schools. Consumers pay for their food via local taxes and must shop at one local public supermarket, and only one, at which food products are available at no additional marginal cost. However, parents are free to pay their taxes and pay for food elsewhere, at a private supermarket. Most thinking people would probably agree that this is a spectacularly bad idea. Public supermarkets would deteriorate relative to private supermarkets. Rural and inner city supermarkets would likely suffer the most. Public supermarket worker unions would lobby for higher food taxes. And of course proposals for supermarket choice would be met with hysteria. Read the earlier post for more discussion of the likely consequences.

One of the arguments often made in favor of today’s public school monopoly is that K-12 education should be regarded as a necessity, but few would take that as a compelling reason to grant government a monopoly in the retail food business. A better argument for government schools, were it strictly true, would be that education is a public good, yielding significant non-exclusive benefits to the community. And in truth there are some external benefits to society from an educated citizenry. The primary benefits of an education, however, are exclusive to the student. Kevin Currie-Knight offers an excellent treatment of the education-as-public-good question, and he concludes otherwise. And the public-good argument does not imply that parents should be denied choice in their selection of a school for their children. Ultimately, the policy question hinges on whether government schools, as currently structured, do a good job in educating students, and as Corey A. DeAngelis points out, they do not.

There is no shortage of evidence that school choice is beneficial for students and society in several respects, including academic outcomes for students and schools, racial integration, fiscal impacts, and parental satisfaction. This paper by MIT researchers found that school choice improved educational outcomes for special education students and those who were not proficient in English. This essay in Education Week, signed by nine educational researchers, emphasized the preponderance of positive findings on school choice and some additional dimensions of improvement on which they hope the education research community will focus.

The promise of choice is seldom greeted objectively by the public education establishment and its reflexive allies. To their dishonor, distortions of fact and ad hominem attacks on choice advocates are almost the rule. For example, John Stossel writes the following in “Why the Left Hates Betsy DeVos“:

When she spoke at the Kennedy School of Government, students held up signs calling her a ‘white supremacist.’ … When she tried to visit a school, activists physically blocked her way. … The haters claim DeVos knows little about education, only got her job because she gave money to Republican politicians, and hates free public education.

Of course, public education is not free! But it is a disgrace that someone so dedicated to the cause of improved education should be treated this way. The DeVos family has given over a billion dollars to various causes over the years, much of it to educational initiatives, and even those gifts, somehow, are seen by critics as a pretext for vilifying Betsy DeVos. But she knows much more about the poor performance of public schools than her critics care to discuss, as well as the dynamism and improvement that choice and competition can bring to education. Her critics disparage the performance of charter schools in DeVos’s home state of Michigan even while the facts show that they have performed well.

The idea that charter schools “hurt” public schools by creating educational choice is the very weakest protest a monopolist can put forward. These critics conveniently overlook the fact that most charter schools are in fact public schools! More importantly, an erstwhile monopolist must respond by adding value for consumers! If it fails to do so, it must be closed or reorganized. THAT is a good idea!

Monopoly public schools do not earn a profit in the way of monopolistic business enterprises, but remember that perhaps the greatest social costs imposed by monopolies are languid effort and a poor product. This is not to dismiss the great efforts of many teachers who toil under trying circumstances, though the current system also tends to protect bad teachers. And much of the waste in government schools is caused by bloated bureaucracy and costs imposed on teachers and schools of complying with regulation

The Federal Bureaucracy

Another priority of Secretary DeVos is to reduce the federal role in education. Hurry, please! The unpopular Common Core standards, implemented in 2009, proved a failure. Test scores declined for student cohorts expected to benefit the most (those in the lowest percentiles). At the last link, Nancy Thorner discusses more recent legislation:

It was in December of 2015 that Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that replaced the often criticized No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). ESSA, in contrast to NCLB, signified a clear move away from federally prescribed standards. In fact, ESSA expressly forbid federal regulators from attempting to ‘influence, incentivize, or coerce’ states to adopt the Common Core.”

That’s progress, but 36 states plus DC still use those standards. Curriculum mandates are only one area of federal school regulation that must be addressed. “Educational equity” is also mandated along several dimensions, requiring schools to devote a disproportionate share of resources to various subsets of students who might not benefit from the extra instructional intensity. Then there are the administrative costs of demonstrating compliance with these mandates, not to mention the virtual prohibition under these mandates of developing innovative, local solutions to the problem of educating their charges.

There is well-deserved pushback against federal control over school discipline, which requires schools to implement policies that avoid disparate impacts on certain minorities (African Americans, Latino, and special-ed children) such that they are no more likely to receive detention, suspension, or expulsion than the general student population. This is an absurdity, potentially requiring schools to go light on offenders should they happen to belong to a minority. Even worse, if the enforcement of discipline results in an observable bias in favor of any minority, it is likely to be noticed by the minority students themselves, creating a negative behavioral incentive and potentially stoking resentment among non-minority students.

In April, President Trump signed an executive order authorizing a review of federal education rules imposed on states and local school districts. Again, central regulation is costly: it involves rule-making at the federal level to interpret enabling legislation, then review by state departments of education where specific policies are designed, which are then passed down to school districts and individual schools, who must review and attempt to implement the policies, and who then must report back on their success or failure in meeting the mandates. Resources are consumed at every level. In the end, the process creates increased complexity, and the policies have proven to be of questionable value to the goal of good education. While spending on education has soared over the past 30 years, student achievement has remained static, and the same disparities of outcome remain.

Secular Statism

Robert P. Murphy provides a brief history of U.S. public schooling. It is a fascinating take on the history of secularization of education in America. It is the story of the substitution of state for private institutions, including family and church, in the development and socialization of children. Murphy offers a telling quote:

Thus Henry Brown, second only to Horace Mann in championing state education, commented, ‘No one at all familiar with the deficient household arrangements and deranged machinery of domestic life, of the extreme poor, and ignorant, to say nothing of the intemperate—of the examples of rude manners, impure and profane language, and all the vicious habits of low bred idleness—can doubt, that it is better for children to be removed as early and as long as possible from such scenes and examples.'”

Whoa! The K – 12 public education system, as it now stands, is striking in its failure to benefit the children and families it is intended to serve. Critics of meaningful reform do not acknowledge the abysmal condition and performance of many government schools in America today, except to insist that they need more money. These critics, including the educational bureaucracy, teachers unions, and misguided statists generally, behave as if they accept the attitudes expressed by Henry Brown. They have no respect for private decision makers — families, churches, private schools of any stripe, and private markets in general. They do not understand the power of incentives and competition to allocate resources efficiently and maximize well-being. But they know how to disparage, defame, and propagate hateful rhetoric for those with a true interest in creating a better educational system for all.