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  • Arne Mortensen

An unstated problem with Public Education


I was perusing some of my files and found this piece which I wrote in March of 2010. Seven years later, we seem to have learned nothing, and we now face the McCleary decision.

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The Unstated Problem with public Education Today

I’ve met some people who think that the public school systems in our country are doing a good job, but the data shows that is not the case. In fact, just casual observations tell us that something is wrong. Of course, we can’t move to understand and remedy a problem if we do not recognize that there is a problem, so let me point out some obvious evidence that there is a problem:

  • Public schools spend substantially more money than private schools per capita, on the average, yet the product of private schools largely is accepted as superior.

  • As a nation, we must import technical talent from foreign countries because we do not produce enough scientists, engineers, and doctors.

  • Relative to the rest of the world, we are losing ground in our standard of living.

  • There are flack jacketed police officers on our school campuses.

  • There are a myriad patch-quilt programs (e.g. No child left behind, WASL standards) from the various governments that continue to address performance problems.

  • And, no amount of money seems to be enough to keep the public school systems’ administrators happy.

  • There is a growing movement by parents (customers) to withdraw from public education. Home schooling is on the rise, and the private school market is strong. If the free public schools were good, then we would see at most a minimal presence of home schoolers and private schools; this already tells us something significant because no typical person will buy a more expensive item of the same or lesser quality.

Although many will argue with me the positive merits of public education, these often are emotional apologetics; however, there simply is no escape from the observations outlined above. These observations have no philosophy or bias; after all, they just are facts. You can find many good reads on this topic from Sheldon Richman, Thomas Sowell (read his “A Personal Odyssey,” if you can), John Stossel and many others who have a solid unbiased understanding of education.

The source of the problem is unstated because it is, for the most part, an unthinkable concept: compulsory education is harmful.

Of course, education itself cannot be harmful, but the system by which we claim to achieve education can be so ineffective as to stifle education due to a variety of phenomena.

  • Students that do not want to learn (for whatever reason) are forced to go to school where they waste their time, the teacher’s time, and their fellow classmates’ time.

  • Students that do not want to learn consume physical resources, wasting them, thus preventing those resources from being available to those who want to learn.

  • Students that do not want to learn do not learn, forcing the administration into a decision to flunk or pass the students. This has resulted in a gradual degradation of standards.

  • Students, of course, are young and easily influenced by peers. The shallow students drag down their peers.

  • Students who do not want to learn are prone to mischief and property damage (which, even if minor, these costs accumulate over time).

Public schools are charged with a task just as impossible as making a horse drink water; we can lead the horse to the trough, but we can’t make it drink. And if we force it to the trough, it blocks access of some thirsty horse to the trough. We can build more and better troughs, but the horses still will not drink on our command, and we will have spent more money for no gain.

The reality is that most people will not allow themselves to consider doing away with compulsory education. The emotion is that education is good and so we need to force people to go to school. Yet, in others matters of living, most of us understand that people must be willing to help themselves to improve themselves; whether it is joining Jenny Craig or Gambler’s Anonymous, it is an act that the persons must take on themselves. Education is no different. The greatest beneficiary of education is the individual herself; if that isn’t incentive enough, what makes us think that “jail” time will work?

Some education is better than none, right? True, but we must ask at what price … and the very first set of bullet points above tell you what price we pay for this attitude. Few of us could really agree to pay that price, and none should force that price upon the nation.

Before we plead the case, say, of the misfortunate child in a dysfunctional household whose parents would forego sending their kids to school as a rationale for government mandates, we should discover whether that problem (and similar such pathological cases) represents a great enough issue to warrant intervention. Because we tend to have a natural benevolence, when we see individual cases which are wrong, we respond with mandates and legislations to cure the problem. But, we often overlook the overall harm that comes from our actions to make the world fair. That is why compulsory and public education has fallen well short of our expectations and requirements.

In general, compulsory behavior laws (not laws to protect life and property, but laws that tells us how to live) fail at tackling the very same problem they are meant to solve. We may think that, whatever the outcome of such an effort, the outcome is acceptable, because at least we tried to fix something; but the damage never is limited to just that. In our system of compulsory education, we can see clearly that we still fail to educate properly our target students, and our target children still suffer from their parents’ ignorance or lack of attention. As disappointing as that outcome is, the bulk of the damage done by the system is the collateral damage, which has been cited in the above bullets.

We might think, as do many conscientious people, that if compulsory education can spare just one child, then there is no price too high to pay for that achievement. But, as we can see from the data, the price to save one child comes at the price of a system that must, per force, debase society by sacrificing the success of many individuals to save a few in a bad situation. In the end, we see that our society suffers from ever weakening education and now has less spare productivity to spend voluntarily on either advantaged or disadvantaged students. Everyone now is a loser, not just the few we might have saved.

By ceding to the government our rights to control our education we have embarked upon a path that saps our own sense of responsibility for ourselves and our family and gives away our personal freedom. We then rely on others to decide for us what is good. The ones who “know better” how we should live are willing to use legislative force to get their way. This sets us up political fights, situations in which one side tries to control the other. Compulsory education is deeply involved in this fight.

Keeping political and emotional realities in mind, what can we do? First, we must realize that we cannot make the world fair. The best we can do, and what we should do, is conduct ourselves fairly, not using force on our fellow man to get what we want. Second, we must realize that organized centralized systems funded from general funds never solve a problem and always become the problem. Third, we must realize that the saving of people from bad circumstances can be done only with personal commitment and involvement; mandates to force someone else to fix the problem don’t work (just look around and you can conclude nothing else). That is what makes faith based efforts far more successful vehicles for education and what makes private adoptions a meaningful way to impact positively individual lives. “Saving” people is a personal/individual activity that far outperforms statist solutions.

Specifically, what can we do? It makes no sense to take huge steps at once for a variety of practical reasons. We could start by implementing any of the many voucher proposals to see whether the parents have a better idea about what is best for their kids or the state has the better idea. I think we know the answer (but we should be prepared to look at the results objectively after some predetermined time period with predetermined metrics).


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