Monday, October 3, 2016

The Separation of School from State

There’s more going on this fall than the presidential election. Some of it is closer to home, and with more immediate effect on our families. Here in Texas it’s time to gear up for the upcoming bi-annual legislative session, from mid-January to early June. Some bills start getting preliminary bill numbers in a month or so. If we can get the attention of our legislators early, we may be able to persuade them to work on the legislation we’re interested in.

I’m working on a list. One of the main big issues is education. This week I happened upon a couple of inputs to my thinking. One is a video called “It’s Time for School Choice in Texas.” It’s only about 8 minutes, so worth watching in full. But here are some of the details.

Texas spends an average of $12,761 per student, for 4.8 million students. Education makes up 52.7% of the state’s general budget. After you watch the video, we’ll talk about it some more.

Data may not mean much without some context. So I did some research. The Cato Institute has come up with a different way of looking at the numbers. Instead of an annual cost per student, they look at the total cost of educating a student K-12, and use inflation-adjusted dollars.

Image from Cato Institute with more detail here

This chart takes us only through 2012. Nationally, and also in Texas, there has been some slowdown, and even decrease, in the annual cost per student during 2010-2015. Nevertheless, total cost per student over time has grown exponentially, while results have remained flat.

In economic terms, when the cost for a service has grown exponentially and offers no additional value, we don't purchase that service. Because we have a choice in how to spend our money.

But in government-run education, we do not have a choice. So we are forced to make the purchase regardless of the bad service.

The video talks about several ways of moving toward school choice, summarized as,

Let the money follow the students. And let students and families decide how best to educate their kids.
Whatever we do, choice needs to lead away from publicly funded education. Because wherever government goes beyond its proper role, there will be unintended negative consequences, usually exactly the opposite of the stated goal.

So, if government says the goal is to educate the populace, and particularly to offer education as a way out of permanent poverty, you can expect that government education will be less effective at educating the populace than the other options, and will particularly fail those in poverty.

That means—if you care about the education of your children and the rest of the children in society, you should be against government education.

That is a radical idea today. But a century ago it was still a mainstream thought. Go back 150 years or so, and the idea of government taking over education was crazy radical.

If we need an educated populace—people who are as well-educated as the founding fathers—we need people who avoid the institutionalized indoctrination factories that have been foisted upon us. Especially in this day when so many other educational avenues are available.

Another resource I came across this week was a free ebook by Tom Woods, Education without the State.  He’s a Libertarian, so there are areas where I will disagree with him, but education is not one of them. The first few chapters of the book (the part I’ve read so far) are transcriptions of interviews he has done with people working on educational choice.

Woods begins by pointing out that education is one of the stiffest stumbling blocks against Libertarianism. As Woods says in his introduction, “Public schooling is as close to the official religion of the United States as any institution is ever likely to be. And if you are reading this eBook, you are likely a heretic.”

So, yes, I recognize that I am a heretic. Since I homeschooled my kids for a decade, I already knew that.

About funding, Woods and Sheldon Richman, author of Separating School and State, discuss the usual arguments about budgets:

WOODS: Just about everyone agrees that there are problems with the government-run schools, and the kids aren’t learning what they should be learning, but then come the excuses: this is because the schools have been deprived of funds, and we don’t have the right priorities, and we favor basketball players over scholars. If only we could change this, we could get our act together. Why would you think the solution would instead involve getting rid of the whole system, root and branch?
RICHMAN: Well, the idea that they haven’t spent enough money is laughable. They’ve been spending amazing amounts of money year after year for twenty or so years, in increasing amounts. They haven’t shown any results. There’s no improvement.
The other thing is that the worst districts in the country have the highest per-capita spending. In Detroit, or Chicago, inner-city schools, Washington, D.C., they are spending $10,000 or more per student, and they have worse results even than other public school districts, government school districts, that spend less per capita. There is no correlation between the amount of money spent and the performance of the children. So that is not the problem.[i]
One of the larger arguments is about educating the poor. Without government schools, wouldn’t poor kids be stuck in poverty? Richman addresses that:

Government produces many obstacles to individual self-advancement economically. And one of the biggest obstacles is its schools. If you look at the inner-city schools, they are just sabotaging generation after generation. If you set out to ruin generations of kids, you could not design a better system than the one we have. So that’s one reason alone that parents don’t seem to have enough money to educate their kids.[ii]
The next chapter hits that idea even harder. Woods interviews Pauline Dixon, who has been doing research into private schools for the poor. She has been to very poor, slum areas, in Africa, China, and India, places identified by UNESCO or the World Bank as very poor. And they found low-cost private schools in all of these areas. Here’s part of their discussion:

WOODS: I think what surprised me the most about your talk was the very existence of the low-cost private schools that you were finding in these various places. That runs contrary to the expectations of many people. It runs contrary to the expectations of certain economic models that hold education to be a public good, which will therefore be underfunded on the market. So what’s going on here? Tell us something about the types of schools that you encountered and how it’s possible that they were, from the West’s point of view, anyway, more or less under the radar all this time.
DIXON: Exactly right. The main reason parents are voting with their feet away from the state sector is that the state sector is failing them. These parents don’t read World Bank reports. They don’t wait around for governments to actually do something for them, because their governments aren’t going to do something for them. So these parents have to do something for themselves. And what happened in India, for example, was that entrepreneurs within certain areas were finding that government schools were teaching only in Hindi or the local language, and that’s not what parents wanted. Parents wanted schools that were what’s called English Medium. That means that their children were going to read and write in English. So local entrepreneurs, because these schools grow organically within the communities themselves, started off what we call low-cost private schools in order to satisfy parental demand.
What happened, for example in India, is that parents started moving away from the government schools. What you tend to think is that a government school would be provided free, but there are always these hidden costs. Parents still have to buy a uniform. They have to buy books. There’s transport to schools and so on. And the local private schools weren’t actually that much more costly for the parent than sending your child to a government school. A low-cost private school costs maybe $4, $5, $6 per month per child, which is about six percent of a worker’s daily wage. So in India, for example, what we found was that these low-cost private schools have sprung up because parents wanted English Medium. That’s the main thing. But also because the government schools were failing.[iii]
In the next chapter Woods interviews James Tooley, author of The Beautiful Tree, about these unlikely private schools. Tooley says,

I’ve been recently in Liberia, south Sudan, and Sierra Leone, and the same phenomenon exists. You talk to people in government or NGOs, non-government organizations, or middle-class people, and even they don’t know about it. So it is extraordinary. The poor are doing something for themselves all over the world, and yet somehow people refuse to accept that they are doing it.[iv]
What I would like to assert is that parents have the role of seeing to the care and education of their own children. When they love their children, they sense this responsibility and act on it. I know I did. Whatever the cost in time and effort, within the limits of our financial means, I would do it. I’m middle class and not on the verge of starvation, but I did have to stand up against some pretty strong social forces to do what I knew was better for my children. 

That is what good parents do, regardless of their circumstances.

In the video above, there’s this quote from economist Milton Friedman:

As long as the schools are governmental, as long as they are financed and administered by public entities, they are a source of political power.
Friedman was actually one of the first proponents of the voucher system, an attempt to move choice from government to parents. School lobbies fight it tooth vouchers tooth and nail. As a homeschooling parent, while I wasn’t against the voucher movement, I was very wary of anything that might give government control over what I was doing in my private school with my kids. Woods and Richman have a discussion about that, worth reading.[v] I think Richman may be right that it isn’t even a step in the right direction.

But the concept of school choice is the right direction, however we accomplish it. The above video suggests a list, some of which I could argue for:

·         Education Savings Accounts
·         Scholarship Tax Credits
·         Expand Charter Schools
·         Better Parent Trigger Laws
·         Home-Rule School Districts
·         School Finance Reform
I’m particularly interested in Education Savings Accounts, and I’ll be bringing this idea to legislators this session. I’m uncertain of the details on several of the other suggestions. For now, I’m favoring ESAs, because there’s so much in control of the parents, and such a wide array of options. But ESAs have to be implemented without government interference into content/indoctrination.

If we succeed in returning people to recognizing education as a family responsibility, instead of a government “service,” we can also return to the idea of using charitable donations from businesses and individuals to offer support to the poor, so that every student willing to learn gets to learn.

[i] Tom Woods, Education without the State,  p. 4.
[ii] Ibid. p. 5.
[iii] Ibid. p. 12-13.
[iv] Ibid, p. 19.
[v] Ibid, p. 7.

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