Education Reform

By Dave Nalle
Our America Initiative Advisory Council Member of Liberty Coalition Partners

The first public schools in America were founded by groups of private citizens to serve the educational needs of the communities in which they lived. They were not mandated by state or federal government, just created to answer the need of society for educated citizens. They were called public schools not because they were part of a public government, but because attendance was open to the general public. Anyone could attend, and tuition was set based on ability to pay. Education was basic and functional. Costs were kept extremely low so that no one had to pay an unreasonable tuition. 

This basic idea of practical education for a local community at a reasonable price has a rich and successful history. From the William Penn charter school in colonial Philadelphia to parochial schools of the 19th and 20th century, communities have found it practical and economical to provide their members with the education they need. Even the earliest ancestors of modern public schools - like the Free Schools of the 1840s - were structured and funded on a local basis, not under the auspices of state or national government.

Only relatively recently has the idea of a nationwide, uniform system of mandatory education been imposed on our communities. Even in its relatively short history it has become clear that this type of education does not work. Government controlled schools provide an inferior quality of education at a much higher price with far less sensitivity to the needs and interests of the communities the schools supposedly serve.

The heart of the traditional community school was the teacher, a clearly identifiable individual who had real responsibility for the children in his or her care, and was answerable primarily to the parents in the community. There were no central regional administrators, nationwide educational initiatives or faceless state or federal bureaucrats pushing cookie-cutter curricula or promoting the agendas of special interests in place of real education. If there was something wrong in your kid's school you took it up with the teacher or principal of that school who was answerable to you and to other parents, not to some distant, uninvolved bureaucracy. This structure encouraged parental involvement and made schools responsive to community needs. It also resulted in better educated students.

We need to move back to this tradition, put control of the schools in the hands of the parents and teachers, massively reduce administration, take the burden of bureaucracy off the backs of teachers and put the emphasis back on education.

So long as education continues to be supported by tax dollars, states should put strict limits on administrative spending and administrative personnel and should shift responsibility for administration in the hands to teacher-administrators and parent volunteers. School districts should be made smaller. Ideally the largest administrative unit would be the neighborhoods served by a specific school.

The ultimate solution is to move schools into the community and out of the public sector. This could be accomplished through the use of educational vouchers which could be spent at community schools or private schools to provide freedom of choice.

Private education works. The average private school today spends less money per student, yet provides a better education than public schools in the same area. There is no justification for forcing parents to pay ever increasing taxes to support a failed system.

Ordinarily the argument for school vouchers is that they will give underserved students access to a better education. But there is another argument in favor of them which is purely fiscal and ought to be considered by school districts which are short of funds. A voucher program can actually be used to increase the effective amount of money available to spend per student in the public school system by allowing some students to leave, but holding a portion of what would have been spent on them in reserve to underwrite the cost of educating the students who stay behind.

With public schools costing a minimum of $10,000 per student, every student given a $7000 voucher to move to a private school leaves $3000 behind for the public school district to spend to improve the quality of programs for the remaining students.  Many teachers would rather teach in the less restrictive environment of a private school and this would create opportunities for them to move into the private sector.

This system might have to be phased in gradually. A lot of parents would leap at the opportunity, but it might take a few years before sufficient additional private school capacity were developed. But as students made this transition, public schools could be sold off to companies, or even collectives formed by teachers, to meet that need.

Many of these schools might very well be able to operate at below the voucher cost, especially in the lower grades. Private schools routinely operate at a cost of $5000 or less per student for pre-kindergarden through 3rd grade. The hard truth is that private education can do a better job for less money than public education typically does.

For this kind of partial privatization plan to work you would need the cooperation of administrators and teachers, whose unions have traditionally been the main stumbling block to any kind of education voucher program. In this case, since the alternatives are larger class sizes, fewer schools and teacher and staff layoffs, logic would suggest that the unions would reevaluate their position on vouchers, or that teachers would see sense and take action on their own.

Vouchers are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative in an environment of diverse educational options, especially with urban, minority parents. There are grassroots movements in virtually every major urban area where parents and community leaders — mostly of African-American or Hispanic heritage — are working to bring a program like this to their communities. They want to have more of a say in how education dollars are spent and to let competition drive improvement in education for everyone. They believe that the person most qualified to choose the best sort of school for an individual child is that child’s parent.

Community schools, charter schools and private schools all function well in this kind of system and as demonstrated by the very successful Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, DC.  In DC these vouchers let students escape from a system where only 59% of students even graduate and only a fifth of those end up going to college. DC area private schools graduate close to 100% of their students and almost all of those graduates go on to college. In fact a quarter of them go to one of the top 10 colleges in the nation. DC charter schools also perform well, graduating 91% of their students and sending 83% of those graduates to college, almost 4 times the college placement rate of the DC public schools..

This is the kind of education which every child deserves, not just the rich and privileged. 

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