School Choice – The Free Market Solution

Most Americans now accept and believe that school choice is a good thing.  But the largest teachers’ union, the NEA, still adamantly opposes allowing public funds to follow the student to the school of his choice.  And the political clout of the teachers’ union remains the biggest impediment to improvement in education.

I am a disciple of free-market economics.  Economics steers every human undertaking.  It is ubiquitous in every aspect of our daily lives and has been since the dawn of man.  Every adult on Earth awakens each day and sets out to improve the standard of living for himself and his family.  Nothing is more basic and necessary to our sustained well-being than knowledge of the economic forces that create wealth.

The law of supply and demand is as universally accepted as the law of gravity.  When the supply of something is scarce, it is more valuable.  And when something is valuable and in high demand, more of it will be produced.  In a true free market consumers will always choose the product that best meets their needs at the lowest price, and the profit motive for meeting this demand guarantees the continuous improvement of products.  Free competition for that profit completes the equation.

Free-market supply and demand has brought us smart phones, better cars, nicer homes – comfort, safety and wealth.  In a free market profits and wealth are generated as the quality of products improve and prices go down.  So why hasn’t the quality of education improved in our country, the epicenter of the free market, despite massive spending?  Clearly it’s because education has been removed from the free market.

When a purchase decision is made by someone other than the consumer, the product is unlikely to be what the consumer wants and needs.  Inevitably, educational decisions made by government officials, rather than parents, will not yield optimal results.  Our nation’s educational system is not keeping pace with other countries, and our employers say they can’t find enough employees with basic literacy and math skills.  Most fingers point the blame at our traditional (non-choice) schools.

Times have changed.  Technology has largely eliminated the challenges of distance and time that established the traditional school model primarily still in use today.  As traditional brick-and-mortar neighborhood schools slide toward obsolescence, the ultimate free-market school choice, home schooling, shows rapid growth.  For-profit and non-profit alternative and technical schools are in such demand that exotic lottery algorithms are used to determine which families will win admission.  Private schools enjoy continued enrollment growth.  The traditional government school is now the last resort for most families.

While the concept of school choice is broadly supported by parents, progress in changing the way education is funded has been slow.  In most states home-school and private-school families must still pay taxes for traditional schools that they do not use.  States and districts that support school choice generally fund them with tax dollars through direct allocation, vouchers or scholarships, although at lower rates than they fund traditional schools.  The majority of states and districts still fund only traditional public schools.

Education cannot be removed from economic reality.  The most reliable and quickest tools for process improvement in education are the same time-tested economic incentives that drive the entire world to higher standards of living every day.  The consumers of the education system, parents, must be trusted to make the right purchasing decision for education, the same way they are trusted to buy the right vegetables or the right car to suit their needs.

Until the NEA and the political leaders they financially support agree to allow school funding to travel (or stay home) with the student, education will remain outside the free market, in denial of the proven economic leverage that improves results, lowers costs, and increases standards of living.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side

I study nuclear science
I love my classes
I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
I’m doing all right, getting good grades
The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades

The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades) – Timbuk 3

School Choice and Fairness

school-bus-1368136904lVvQuestions of “fairness” come up often in the debate over school choice.

Is it fair that some students attend quality public schools and get a great education while others are left in failing and dangerous schools?  Is it fair that one school district receives and spends $30,000 per student while another can only muster $6,500?  Is it fair that some families can afford to send their children to private schools while others must attend the school assigned to them by the government?

These are all part of the bigger issue of redistribution of wealth:  Is it fair for the government to take, by force, the property of one citizen and give it to another?

Americans almost universally agree that a good education system is necessary for our collective security and economic well-being, and we are all happy to contribute our fair share to that end.  To a point.

A while back I was discussing school funding with a friend, state representative Ryan Osmundson, who owns a cattle feed business in rural Montana.  I told him I was astonished that many rural school districts had budgets of $22,000 per student and up.  I facetiously asked if a local rancher with four kids went to the school office every fall and wrote a check for $88,000.

Of course they don’t.  And I doubt that very many parents think about where the money came from before it went to their football team, their books, their desks and their teachers.  Reality check:  if you didn’t write a check (or pay property tax) for your school’s average cost per student times the number of students you are sending to school, somebody else is paying your bill.  Is that fair?

But back to Osmundson.  “That’s not the half of it,” he said.  “The superintendent of my rural school district is after me all the time because I am home-schooling my six kids.  He says I am costing his district a lot of money by keeping six students off the school rolls.”

I blinked a couple of times, trying to absorb how not sending kids to school costs money.

Then Osmundson said, “I told the superintendent he should be thanking me.  The way I see it, I am saving the taxpayers $132,000 a year, and paying schools taxes to boot!”

My daughter is home schooling her twins while paying for schools they don’t use.  Fair?

Earlier this month I learned much about school choice at the Franklin Center’s “Amplify Choice” conference in Washington, DC.  Spending per student at a private high school we visited was about half that of the public schools, and yet the quality of education was vastly superior.  Spending and results are clearly not directly correlated.

We agree that it is in our best interest to educate all of our children to the highest standard that is practical, and there is really only one fair way to share the cost of that effort:  education funds must travel with the student to the competing school of his family’s choice.

Whether in the form of school vouchers, or tax credits, or scholarships, or one of the many other “backpack” funding plans, only when the money follows the student will our education system be fair.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side
Treat me right!  Treat me right!
Open your eyes,
Maybe you’ll see the light.
Ooh-ooh, Treat me right!

Treat Me Right – Pat Benatar

School Choice in DC – It’s Working

lion_gazelle posterMark Roberts, graying but still athletic in his crisp suit and tie, stood in the center of his circle of 15 students.  Every eye was on the articulate and energetic instructor as he probed their understanding of the character in their literature assignment, “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe.  The high school juniors bounced their thoughtful and mature-beyond-years analyses off the teacher and each other.  There was not a slacker in the room; each young scholar was as bright and engaged as the next.  And I thought, “I have never seen a high school class like this.”

Like most conservatives, I have always advocated school choice.  In my Adam Smith / free market / supply and demand worldview, whenever consumers have a choice the right products are delivered at the right cost, guided by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace.  Competition drives excellence in every aspect of life.  Why would education be any different?

Last week at Archbishop Carroll Catholic high school in Washington, DC I saw the proof of the theory firsthand.  Without question, these kids have very bright futures and a leg up on their public-school peers.  Maybe two legs, an arm, and a head.

Located in the middle of one of DC’s lowest-income neighborhoods, Archbishop Carroll has evolved over the years.  The aging but well-maintained facility was originally a boy’s school, one of the first segregated schools in DC.  Carroll later went co-ed, absorbed students from other Catholic schools, and in recent years has become a highly-sought educational alternative for families who want to extract their children from the grim, underperforming DC public schools.  While Catholic religious training is offered at Archbishop Carroll, it is not required, and only about 20% of the students take CCD.

Tuition at Archbishop Carroll is about $13,000 per year – far below the amount taxpayers spend annually to educate students at the failing non-charter DC public schools.  Many families pay the full tuition out-of-pocket.  In the interest of diversity, discounts are offered to white, Asian, and Latino students (the student body is almost entirely African-American), as well as registered Catholics.  Over half the students would not be able to afford to attend Archbishop Carroll without grants from the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Archbishop Carroll competes with other private and charter schools for students by offering families a rigorous, no-nonsense academic program in a safe and uplifting environment.  With strong emphasis on accountability, discipline and character development, Carroll provides the education product and opportunity for future success that most parents want for their children.  But the competition doesn’t end there.

On a tour of the school organized by the Franklin Center as part of their “Amplify School Choice” conference, I asked student Wanofe Mideksa if she is a “superstar”, hand-picked to entertain us.  “Not really,” she explained.  “All the students here are high-achievers, because we have to compete to get into Carroll.”  Students are selected for admission by test scores, admission essays and interviews.  Once enrolled, they have to maintain their motivation levels.  Most students take public transportation, some traveling as long as an hour each way.  They wear jackets and ties, and dresses.  They are addressed as “Mr.” and “Miss”  and decorum is maintained at all times.  The school deliberately sets tuition just beyond the scholarship amount to ensure that every family has “skin in the game.”

And Archbishop Carroll competes for the best instructors.  “Our teachers don’t sit down during class,” said the school president, Mary Elizabeth Blaufuss.  “You won’t find them texting when they should be teaching.  They are here because they want to be part of a serious academic program.”

Education is no different from any other product or service.  When consumers have choices and suppliers have to offer the very best products to compete for their business, everybody wins.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side

Did you ever have to make up your mind?
You pick up on one and leave the other one behind
It’s not often easy and not often kind
Did you ever have to make up your mind?

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?  – The Lovin’ Spoonful