2008/12/29

Two Cents More

Why is the government in the education business at all? Prompted by Parry Graham...
For those exceptional children and circumstances, I agree that a greater amount of flexibility would likely be beneficial. However, you appear to be arguing that this approach should be extended to all children and parents, replacing the existing structure of formalized K-12 public schooling.
...we return to this question.

The argument does not proceed from exceptional cases to a generalization. I use exceptional cases as stark illustrations of the generalization.

Back up several steps.

The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition). Place industries on a continuum. What part of the continuum from "very likely candidate for State operation" to "very unlikely candidate for State operation" does the education industry occupy? In abstract, the education industry is a very unlikely candidate for State (government, generally) operation.

Why does the State intervene in the education industry at all? This "why?" question has three interpretations: 1) The welfare-economic "why?". What does society gain from a State role in the education industry? 2) The historical "why?". What events coincided with the State's entry into the education business? 3) The political science "why?". What do those politicians who support the State's presence in the education industry gain from their support?

1) See below.
2) Anti-Catholic bigotry.
3) Dedicated lobbying by current recipients of the taxpayers' $500 billion+ per year K-12 education subsidy.

1) We consider the welfare-economic argument for a State role in the education industry here.

The case for subsidy is weak. Given the case for State subsidization of the education industry, the case for State operation of schools for the general population is weaker still.

Please read the introductory section (p 88) in West, E.G.,
Education Vouchers in Principle and Practice: A Survey
The World Bank Research Observer, V12, #1, Feb., 1997.

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 the usual welfare-economic arguments for State operation of an industry. Even when an industry qualifies as a natural monopoly or exhibits significant economies of scale the case for State operation of an industry is not decisive, and the education industry is not a natural monopoly and, beyond a very low level, does not exhibit significant economies of scale at the delivery end as it currently operates.

Education only marginally 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 an industry. The State cannot subsidize education without a definition of "education" but then students, parents, and real classroom teachers are bound by the State's definition. You will have a hard time finding a definition specific enough to guide a bureaucrat whose job it is to assess whether State funds are well spent and yet general enough to encompass all that normal people would call "education". In consequence, policy makers compose restricted definitions which force wildly varying children into a narrow mold. The results are tragic.

Further, State assumption of responsibility for the provision (even through subsidization) of public goods does not eliminate the "free rider" problem at the root of "public goods" analysis. The State is a corporation. Corporate oversight is a public good. Oversight of State functions is a public good which the State itself cannot provide.

I see a semi-plausible case for State operation of schools for some limited subset of the sub-adult population. Compulsory attendance statutes mean little unless some schools must accept students rejected everywhere else. Call these default-option schools "the public schools". Taxpayers do not benefit from policies which give a narrow cartel (the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel) a long-term exclusive position in receipt of the budget dedicated to the operation of these schools. Taxpayers would benefit from a policy which periodically put contracts for the operation of these schools out to bid. Let the NEA compete with the HGEA, the AFT, Edison, The University of Phoenix, and the Catholic Church for these contracts.

Government is not some all-seeing, benevolent God. People do not become more intelligent, more altruistic, better-informed, or more capable (except in their enhanced access to the tools of violence) when they enter the State's employ. Children are not standard. Remote State actors, wielding the blunt instrument of State violence, have little usefully to contribute to the education industry.

7 comments:

mazenko said...

What is your vision for a nation with no public education, and what is the viability for such a plan working in a nation of 300 million people? I can't think of any time or place in history when a lack of public education has had a positive impact on the society? Just curious.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Do not equate "government-operated schools" and "public education".

We would get more public education if the State (government, generally) left the production of education to students, parents, and the people and institutions that students and parents choose. Are we starving because the State does not operate collective farms and grocery stores? Are we naked because the State does not operate textile mills and clothing stores?

Here's a thought experiment: place industries on a continuum from "Very unlikely candidate for State operation" to Very likely candidate for State operation", where "likely" depends on welfare-economic considerations and the midpoint of the continuum is a point of net zero benefits minus costs. The twentieth century demonstrated that most industries fall on the "below zero" side of this continuum. Now try to compose a general principle which characterizes the distribution of industries along this continuum. Government operation causes least harm when inputs and outputs are simple (making control by remote authorities easy) and when the relative contribution of expertise versus local knowledge favors expertise. By these criteria, the education industry is a very, very unlikely candidate for State operation.

By "expertise" in the above, I do not mean "subject-area knowledge". I teach Math. People with specialized knowledge teach Chemistry, Electronics Shop, and European History. I do not intend to dismiss the contributions of expert teachers. The point is, parents and students (if they are old enough) can choose the expert teachers whom they employ, just as we choose butchers, auto mechanics, tailors, physicians, and lawyers.

In a market-oriented economy the State has a role in prosecuting fraud in every industry, but no role in operating any industry.

mazenko said...

I follow your line of reasoning, but knowing society, education, parents, and children as I do, I don't see any applicable model for what you are proposing. I have ventured down this theoretical path before, and I spent a lot of time attempting to formulate a model, yet my conclusions disproved my hopes every time. Could you give me some specifics on your vision in practical reality and perhaps propose a comparable example of where this has worked?

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Obviously, the current situation in the US differs greatly from an unsubsidized, unregulated, competetive market in sub-adult education services. We have examples of nearly all individual pieces of an unsubsidized, unregulated market, but not all in one developed country in modern times.

Many countries subsidize a parent's choice of school. In Singapore, 40% of schools take tax subsidies and are not State (government, generally) operated. Since independent schools in Singapore tend to enroll fewer students, this means somewhat fewer than 40% of Singapore students attend independent school. In Ireland and Hong Kong 90% of students take tax subsidies to independent or parochial schools, according to OECD __Education at a Glance__ (online sources for OECD and World Bank say 10% in private schools. Why the discrepancy, I do not know, but I suspect fraud by some World Bank statistician). In the Netherlands, about 75% of students take tax subsidies to independent or parochial schools. In Belgium, about 65%.

Until the early 1990s, Singapore did not compel attendance at school.

Many less-developed countries, either do not compel attendance and do not subsidize schools or they subsidize government-operated schools exclusively and, in some countries, these State-operated schools are so wretched that parents pay for private schools, creating an unsubsidized, unregulated market in sub-adult education services. See the work of James Tooley.

Not all States in the early post-Revolutionary US compelled attendance at school. Most did not. Of those polities which subsidized attendance at school, more subsidized Church-operated schools than government-operated schools.

Before minimum wage laws and child labor laws, an age (end) of compulsory attendance lower than 18 meant, in effect, unregulated on-the-job training from the age (end) of compulsory attendance to age 18.

In some US States, homeschooling amounts unsubsidized, unregulated sub-adult education, except for the regulations imposed by child labor laws and minimum wage laws, which place on-the-job training off limits.

Much adult education receives no subsidy and operates largely without regulation (Berlitz, Rosetta Stone, yoga classes, ju jitsu classes, etc.).

Why suppose that the sub-adult education industry benefits from tax subsidy and State (government, generally) compulsion? This is not a rhetorical question. People do not require compulsion to do what they want to do. In what theory of democratic government does State compulsion contribute to the education industry? Whatever resources the State allocates to the education industry it first must take at gunpoint from taxpayers. In what theory of democratic government does aggregate control over the revenue stream outperform control by individual parents?

mazenko said...

Thanks for the feedback and details. I think we discussed this before on Jay Greene's blog - and I remain intrigued by the concept. What do you think is the feasibility to adapting the US model in such a way? I'm not even thinking about the unions opposing it, as much as simple inertia and the American population being opposed to change.

I was also wondering what your thoughts are concerning the study "Tough Choices, Tough Times," and the decision of New Hampshire to institute some of the reforms, such as a European-model graduation at sixteen.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Budget pressure may force State-level legislators to change the structure of the US K-PhD education industry. Neither welfare-economic consideratons nor humane considerations will prompt change. By-and-large, legislators seek only to get re-elected, and so to accommodate effective constituencies (public-sector unions, construction trades, and construction contractors). Students, parents, and taxpayers do not appear on the radar at all.

I will put my comments on "Tough Choices..." in a post.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Can the current US pre-college school system accommodate Parent Performance Contracting? Yes. Will inertia prevent its acceptance by the public? Programs do not need to appeal to large numbers initially. If just a few successful families lead the way, others can follow. Compare the process to the erosion of an earthen dam: first a trickle, then catastrophic collapse. In this case, the catastrophe benefits everyone except the out-of-classroom parasites who infest large school districts.