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OUR VIEW: Public education fatally flawed

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  • | 5:00 a.m. February 25, 2010
  • Sarasota
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American culture apparently has embedded the idea, irrevocably, that the education of our children is an obligation of the State. Here in Florida, every property owner is forced by the threat of imprisonment to pay taxes for the education of Florida’s 5.5 million children and college-attending adults.

We have done it this way for at least four generations.

And if you judge the results of our state-run education methods and public-education policies by our nation’s standing in the world and our standard of living, we might all conclude public education must be a great system.

Compared to a lot of countries, that would be true. But let’s also be real. We could and should be doing better. What’s more, it must also be said our public-education system did not make America great; individuals did — through their own efforts and achievements.

Yes, the public-education system gave many, many of those Americans access to the tools and knowledge necessary for their success — access that many of them might not otherwise have gotten. But it also would be wrong to conclude that in the absence of taxpayer-funded, state-run public schools the United States would not be what it is today and Americans would not be as educated as they are.

We all know — although many refuse to admit — the free hand of the marketplace miraculously and always fills a vacuum. History is a constant story of how the miracles of human action and ingenuity, the economics of supply and demand and free enterprise have found ways to make exclusive goods and services accessible to the masses or filled vacuums.

The point is: If there were no public-school system, the private marketplace would fill the space and, without a doubt, provide more and better education than is available today in our public schools. That is a fact.

Before explaining how that could be, try first of all to accept the fact that taxpayer-funded education in Florida will never, ever have the money or the skill to provide a Harvard-quality education to every child. Even if Florida taxpayers agreed to double the amount of money now spent on public education, it wouldn’t happen.

We already have evidence. Gov. Charlie Crist is proposing in his last budget to spend $22.7 billion on public education next year. In fiscal 2000, the amount was half that — $11.2 billion. Now look at FCAT scores for Sarasota County 10th graders:

                    2000         2009
Math             325           333
Reading        311           314

To the good, scores have improved. But has the improvement been commensurate with the increase in funding? Ask any employer today how he feels about the average quality of applicants today. He will tell you he would rather hire a 65-year-old than a 20-year-old. The older adult is more dependable and certainly more capable of writing a grammatically correct letter. Surely you’ve seen Jay Leno do his “Jaywalking” feature; it’s absolutely appalling how stupid so many Americans are.

It’s not the money. To a large degree, it’s this: So long as the State — i.e., lawmakers and bureaucrats in Tallahassee and Washington — collectively controls the content and financing of education, public schools will fall victim to the ugly influences of politics and the inefficiencies and mediocrities of bureaucracies. We live that now, every day. And it will never change as long as we keep doing what we’re doing.

Likewise, as long as someone else — the taxpayer — pays the cost of education, we’ll have students and parents who mooch off the system and are held unaccountable (except for what they do to their futures) for squandering taxpayers’ money and teachers’ and fellow students’ time.

Here’s another fatal flaw of State-controlled education: By virtue of having to provide education for all with limited resources, economically you must shape education to fit the widest array of skills — in the other words, teach to the middle. As Rothbard notes, this deprives children of varying skills from getting the attention they need and deserve.

Over the past few decades, of course, more and more parents of exceptional children have demanded access to the same educational resources as everyone else. But how can a public-school system possibly meet the needs of every range of child — and do it well?

For instance, how much of the state’s limited education funds should be spent on autistic children? How much on gifted children? What about the child who has extraordinary science skills? Or the one who is a musical prodigy? What about the average students? Should they be shorted?

Many districts have created magnet schools to try to address these needs. But as Rothbard notes, “Since each child differs from the other in interest and ability, and the teacher can only teach one thing at a time, it is evident that every school class must cast all the instruction into one uniform mold. Regardless how the teacher instructs, at what pace, timing or variety, he is doing violence to each and every one of the children. Any schooling involves misfitting each child into a Procrustean bed of unsuitable uniformity.”

It would be economically unfeasible for every child to have one-on-one instruction that caters to his skills. But there is an in-between — between that and what we have now, and it would be superior to what we have: a market-driven education system.

The best one would leave the funding of every child to his parents, not taxation of others. But that would never fly in America; we’ve become too socialized as a society. Even so, why are we left to our impulses and desires to buy cars, houses, food, clothes, cell phones and myriads of other goods and services without the hand of Big Brother intervening in our choices and decision making? Schooling could be and should be no different.

Preposterous? Not at all. It’s already happening. Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., told radio host Bill Bennett recently there are more than two million American children being home-schooled.

Go online and look up home-schooling. The products, methods, curricula, networks and other goods and services are mushrooming to serve the wide variety and specific wants and needs of parents educating their children at home. The costs and quality of these goods and services come in all ranges as well.

“There is a real market there, and it’s working,” Finn told Bennett.

Just think what all of these parents could do for their children if they had control of the money they are forced to pay in public-school taxes. Then extrapolate that to everyone else. Think what others could do if there were a true market for education. The competition would do what it always does — make education better and more efficient. Certainly more so than it is today.

Public-funded education is fatally flawed. This is why we cannot support extending the one-mill tax on Sarasota County’s March 16 special election ballot.

The following excerpts are from the book, “Education: Free and Compulsory,” by the late Murray Rothbard, economist and author.

What then shall we say of laws imposing compulsory schooling on every child?

These laws are endemic in the Western world. In those places where private schools are allowed, they must all meet standards of instruction imposed by the government. Yet the injustice of imposing any standards of instruction should be clear. Some children are duller and should be instructed at a slower pace; the bright children require a rapid pace to develop their faculties.

Furthermore, many children are very apt in one subject and very dull in another. They should certainly be permitted to develop themselves in their best subjects and to drop the poor ones.

Whatever the standards that the government imposes for instruction, injustice is done to all …

Similarly, any pace that the teacher sets in class wreaks an injustice on almost all; on the dull who cannot keep up and on the bright who lose interest and precious chances to develop their great potential.

The only reason for schools instead of individual instruction is the economic one: that the price of individual tutoring is prohibitive for most parents. Consequently, they must adopt the only practical alternative of mass tutoring …

If the state enforces certain “standards” on the private schools, a far worse crime against the children is committed. For if the parents’ selection of instruction is completely free and unhampered by state coercion, they, knowing and loving the child best, will be able to select the best type of instruction that they can afford …

The advantage of unlimited development of private schools is that there will tend to be developed on the free market a different type of school for each type of demand. Schools will tend to be developed especially for bright children, for average children and for dull ones; for those with broad aptitudes and for those for whom it would be best to specialize, etc.

But if the state decrees that there may be no schools which do not, for example, teach arithmetic, it would mean that those children who may be bright in other subjects but have little or no aptitude for arithmetic will have to be subjected to needless suffering. The state’s imposition of uniform standards does grave violation to the diversity of human tastes and abilities.

The effect of the state’s compulsory schooling laws is not only to repress the growth of specialized, partly individualized, private schools for the needs of various types of children. It also prevents the education of the child by the people who, in many respects, are best qualified — his parents.

The late Murray Rothbard was an economist, economic historian and libertarian political philosopher.


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