Unoriginal Thoughts

Chester Finn wrote a book,Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik. Neal McCluskey wrote a review of this book for the Heartland Institute's website. Finn wrote a review of McCluskey's review, for the Fordham Institute's Education blog, Flypaper, and I left a comment.

That comment, expanded, and with a typo or two corrected (and more added, probably), appears here.
I read Neal McClusky’s review. I doubt I’ll read Chester Finn’s book.

Mr. Finn raises two objections to the free market vision for the education industry:
1) Accountability: Market-driven schools are accountable to parents. The most effective accountability mechanism humans have yet devised is a policy which gives to unhappy customers the power to take their business elsewhere.
2) Affordability: School may be expensive. Education is potentially cheap. It does not take 12 years at $10,000 per student-year to teach a normal child to read and compute. Much vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State-controlled Civics instruction is a clear threat to democracy, just as State control of news media would be (is, in totalitarian States).

The education industry is not a natural monopoly. Beyond a very low level, there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education business as it currently operates. “Natural monopoly” and “economies of scale” are two usual welfare-economic arguments for State (government generally) operation of an industry. Even when an industry qualifies as a natural monopoly or exhibits significant economies of scale, the case for State (government, generally) operation is not decisive, and in any case, the education industry does not qualify as a natural monopoly and does not exhibit significant economies of scale at the delivery end. Education only marginaly qualifies as a public good as economists use the term, and the “public goods” argument implies subsidy and regulation at most, not State operation of schools. Further, the "public goods" argument does not imply the conclusion which many people commonly suppose. As the Palgrave dictionary of Economics observes (in different words, in its discussion of "public goods"), since corporate oversight qualifies as a "public good" (all shareholders benefit from the research and activism of concerned shareholders), and since the State itself is a corporation, the "public goods" argument for State subsidy or operation of an industry has a gap in the logic. The State may collect taxes "for" education subsidies, but then State agents may apply the collected resources to other uses (e.g., elected officials may buy support from constituencies of insiders, bureaucrats may steer resources to friends and relatives). The State's assumption of responsibility for the production of "public goods" transforms the problem but does not eliminate it.

Critics of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel's exclusive position in receipt of the taxpayers' K-12 education subsidy (aka "the public school system") vary in the degree to which they accept the current system, and they vary in the direction from which they see improvement coming. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn somewhere applied the term "small causes" to those reforms advanced by discouraged critics of the Soviet system: If we cannot abolish State control of the economy, maybe at least we can get better cages for the gorillas in the zoo. The "small cause" critics of the US school system advocate reforms such as a different sequence in the Math curriculum or a different canon for English classes. Following Robert Benchley, who observed that there are, broadly speaking, two types of people, those who assign people to one or another of two types and those who do not, I assign advocates for large-scale structural change to one or another of two types: those who favor greater centralization and those who favor greater decentralization.

In his work Socialism, Ludwig Von Mises suggested that socialism is at root a revenge fantasy. I believe this applies as well to system critics like Chester Finn, who seek salvation in some central authority. People who advocate national standards imagine if only the right people wielded the national measuring rod, we could spank the NEA, but good. Suppose, as I do, that current recipients of the US taxpayers' K-12 education subsidy pose the greatest obstacle to structural reform. Suppose, as I do, that insiders deserve a caning for the atrocity of inner-city schools. Still, revenge fantasies becloud the judgment of centralization advocates about the likely consequence of centralization: insiders will gain greater control and overall system performance will fall below current low levels.

The social critic Ivan Illich once wrote that a compassionate society would have in its Constitution a clause like the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which would read: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Education".

I have argued elsewhere that there is a lot of "play" in the description of the current system. Charter schools play with the concepts of "public" ownership of facilities and "public employee". Virtual schools play with the concept of attendance.

Compulsory attendance statutes mean nothing unless some school is compelled to admit students rejected everywhere else. Call these default-option schools “the public school system”. Likely, these default-option schools would cost more, per pupil-year, to operate than would schools which assembled their clientelle by mutual agreement. Legislators could save taxpayer money if they periodically put the contract to operate default-option schools out to bid, and gave to individual parents the power to determine which schools shall receive the taxpayers’ K-12 education subsidy.

Myron Lieberman suggests that financial pressure (the looming retirement of the baby boomers) may eventually compel legislators to end the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s exclusive position in receipt of the taxpayers’ pre-college education subsidy. An end to the State’s presence in the education industry is not likely. While charter schools, school vouchers, tuition tax credits, and subsidized homeschooling would be big improvements on the current State-monopoly school system, I prefer a policy I call Parent Performance Contracting.