Saturday, September 5, 2009

Should we be scared of 'Socialized Education?'

Of course this is a silly question. While we retain free market options for those who can afford them and wish to make use of them, the bulk of our national education system is already 'socialist.' It has been since the Progressive Era.

On a completely unrelated note, it's very likely that a system of 'socialized medicine' would look very much like our system of socialized education. Good and bad with 'free market options' for those unsatisfied. Just thought it should be said.

The real question is this: can we reform socialized education to correct the flaws the current system has created?

Arianna Huffington thinks so. While I have been critical of Ms. Huffington's writings on health care (here and here) lately, this piece deserves praise as well as analysis and criticism. Her idea is certainly bold and sweeping. Ms. Huffington's idea is to break the monopoly that district schools hold on their students by a simple device:

"In a single-payer health care plan, the federal government provides coverage for all U.S. citizens and legal residents. Patients don't go to a government doctor -- they just have the government pay the bill.

And that's how it would work with education. In a single-payer education plan, the federal government, in conjunction with the states, would provide an education allotment for every parent of a K-12 child. Parents would then be free to enroll their child in the school of their choice."

She also argues, with a certain degree of legitimacy, that this would not be a significant increase in out education budget:

"The single-payer health plan would be financed by a payroll tax. In education, the annual cost per child -- equalized for urban and suburban school districts across each state -- would come from the current education funding sources."

So it's really all simply and straight-forward. Which is good, policies should be as simple as possible. However, this may be too simple. Ms. Huffington leaves several questions unanswered.

1.) Does the phrase 'the school of their choice' mean the public school of their choice or any school of their choice?

There are a couple of reasons for asking this question. The first is the obvious one. If the law were defined to mean 'any school of their choice' it would essentially be school vouchers writ large. All of the arguments for and against school vouchers would then apply to this proposal as well. As school vouchers have been advocated in the past, their cons have outweight their pros. This would be present a far greater threat to the public school system than school vouchers alone. If school vouchers take money away from public schools and put it into the private sector, how much worse would a subsidized private school education for any middle class kid whose parents want it be for the public system? We'd risk turning the public system into a bureaucratic ghetto comparable to Medicaid.

It's worth noting that there are countries that do contribute the same set amount of allotted funds for either private or public school and those countries successfully maintain both systems; but those countries have a higher income tax rate than the US. I do not oppose a tax hike to help pay for private school for those students who choose it, but it would be necessary to avoid cutting public school funds to pay for private school tuition.

2.) If the phrase 'the school of their choice' is restricted to public schools, does this mean conventional district schools or does it include charter schools that currently require students to meet strict standards of entry?

This is a hugely important question. Charter schools are frequently waved about by some educators as the solution to the public education problem. Certainly they offer an ability to innovate beyond the standard public school format. The problem is that charter schools' current success is artificial. Charter schools cherry pick the best students with grade requirements, admissions tests, or test score requirements. This guarantees they will 'succeed' while contributing to public school 'failure.' For charter schools to truly work, they have to be open to every student who wishes to go there and more public schools have to use a charter school system to grant academic freedom to the teachers and administration to run the school that works best for its students. This will be necessary for schools to compete in a free system.

3.) How will schools be allowed to compete to avoid overcrowding?

I already answered this question, but I'll raise the problem anyway: freedom to choose any school one wants will inevitably trigger a rush from the worst schools to the best if the current system remains unchanged. This requires reform allowing public schools to successfully compete with private schools and each other be implemented before opening up the system. The obvious answer is to make every public school a charter school. This allows administration and faculty to tailor their curriculum to their students for maximum results and the ability to at least try to reach every kid.

This, after all, is the real problem with American public education: the stultifying effect of the system on the classroom. We run our schools the way we run our prisons and make inmates out of our children. As long as this is the case, making our kids spend more time in school is like making innocent people spend more time in jail.

Ms. Huffington's idea has a lot of merit. I have addressed it with a critical eye less in the interest of deconstructing it than with the intent of improving it. I hope someone else does the same with my own analysis. This is the kind of attempt to solve real problems that Congress should be taking under advisement.


A. Mercer said...

Your more harsh on charters than I am. I think they vary pretty widely in terms of levels of entry (and they also vary to a much greater degree than public schools in quality). BUT, even if all of them had very open admission policies, it wouldn't make a difference because studies have shown that many of the students who need the most help come from families that are just not able to participate in "choice" in the way that policy wonks would like them to. They will not be reached in a system that expects them to autonomously make the "right" choice. Happy to provide cites of studies and some other stuff on this.

Chris Richards said...

First, apologies for the time it took to reply. I missed your comment in my flurry of September/October activity.

I've found that the most successful charter schools, your Bronx Science and similar schools, are extremely careful to cherry pick the most likely students and thus manage to manufacture a lot of their own success.

I actually think I know some of the studies you are mentioning, which is part of why I am so harsh on charters. This is part of why I say the only way to really make an impact through the use of charter schools would be to make ALL schools charter schools. Give every teacher complete freedom to teach every student. Period.

I also believe in something I beat myself up for not including in the original post. More programs to provide students with independent studies options through the school system and to support parents engaged in home schooling. This would make it much easier for kids who don't 'fit the system' to get the kind of individual support they need when it just isn't possible to give it in even the most 'open' classroom setting.