That’s the Way You Debate: Education Reform

Great mustache, H.G. Wells. "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

Matt Rhodes (87% FT, Moderate Elitist):

Fix education, fix everything. I truly believe that. But fixing education in our current system requires cooperation among many misaligned parties, all waiting for the Godot that is consensus among misaligned Parties.

We have already established that I’m not a fan of unions, so I won’t belabor the point here (zany pun intended!). Teachers need to be paid for performance, not seniority, if our public school system is to survive and thrive, and I sincerely hope that Mr. Obama’s Race to the Top will encourage all invested participants to move in the right direction. His lanky education buddy, Arne Duncan, is as freethinking and rational as anyone in Washington, so there may actually be some hope.

One of Duncan’s Chicago pals, John Rogers, offers a good example for other schools in his Ariel Community Academy. By focusing on mentorship, family support, and financial education, he’s empowered the kids at Ariel to overcome the odds and make informed decisions about their future. Just think how hard it would have been to have a financial crisis if high school students were required to learn how credit cards and mortgages actually work.

Rogers is a shining capitalist example of how private profit can foster public good.

Your retort, sir, preferably free of misguided references to Reaganomics or anything else that trickles down…

Sean Deveney, “Left wing, chicken wing, it don’t make no difference to me.” (Woody Guthrie):

You’re right, the trenches dug in by teachers unions have gotten tiresome. If the country were producing the best educated young minds on the planet, they’d have every right to fight for the status quo. But public education is broken and there ought to be open-mindedness when it comes to how to fix it.  Duncan is more worried about fixing than pleasing unions, and he should be applauded for that.

There must be a balance, though. We are, after all, talking about public education and we should always be wary of folks who take a public problem and demand a private solution. And we should be wary of Rhodes, just in a general way.

Charter schools are a good example. I’ve never bought the rhetoric from the unions that charter schools pilfer all the good students and leave the bad for the public schools, as if every charter school was Head of the Class and your local public high school was populated only with Sweathogs. That’s not the case. Charter schools can be great sources of innovation, they very often do welcome difficult cases, and there’s little evidence they sap brainpower from public schools.

But, again, this is PUBLIC education, and the more we introduce private interests, the more danger there is for exploitation of both kids and teachers, the greater the chance the system skews farther into de facto segregation. Not everyone is Mr. Rogers (John, not Fred). I’m all for finding ways to fold private interests into public education, but it must remain public first and foremost.

Matt Rhodes:

Why must it remain public? Is it a matter of access? If so, I agree our children need access…and choice.

My public high school was in a cornfield, and it served a community of families who put very little emphasis on education as well as air force kids with prior exposure to top-flight international instruction. My school never had enough money. Local property taxes paid for our school, and retired folks in the community would always vote down the school levies because they had no children using the school, leaving kids like me on the hook to pay for extracurricular activities like sports and student government trips. My other option was to clean the cafeteria at the local Catholic school to earn my tuition, which I found socially unappealing. In the pre-Internet dark ages of the 1980’s, my family was not sophisticated or connected enough to navigate the maze of private educational opportunities I might have pursued.

The government cannot manage its educational monopoly efficiently. However, my delicious crutch of “small government, privatize everything” does little to move us down the road toward actionable education reform. We’ve written hundreds of words, and we haven’t identified the problem. Everyone agrees public education is broken, but why? Should it not be public in the first place? Is it all socioeconomic? Is the standard curriculum not standardized enough to foster relevant comparability across states and districts for performance-based compensation and consequences?

We need to encourage families to care about education and pursue community-based school choice. Charter schools can work, but they sometimes don’t. It’s often not the quality of management or teachers that drives failure, it’s the students’ lack of willingness to be taught. We need more choice and more technological innovation in the classroom to keep kids interested.

If I’m a student nowadays, what’s my motivation? Do I want to pay attention to my disinterested, tenured teacher so I can get into an ailing state college where tuition increases 10% each year, and graduate with $100,000 in student loans only to find that kids who go to state schools don’t get jobs that allow them to both eat and make minimum payments on their loans?

I’m lucky. I didn’t grow up with much money, but I had intellectually progressive parents who encouraged me to read, write, play music, and attend a fancy private college that was actually much cheaper than state school for me thanks to need-based student aid. Perhaps we should focus on creating more intellectually progressive parents (and teachers, with higher salaries) rather than blaming our kids and the government.

Then again, Charlie Brown had no obvious parents and a teacher with a trombone for a voice, and he’s one of the deepest, most thoughtful cats around.

Sean Deveney:

We can agree, then, that the method used to fund schools in this country is a huge part of the problem. Relying on local property taxes to pay for local schooling naturally creates economic segregation in terms of how much money is spent on each student and also amounts to a regressive tax, with homeowners in poorer school districts paying a much higher percentage in property taxes to fund schools than those in wealthier districts.

If you have 20,000 homes in Happyville worth an average of $300,000 and 20,000 homes in Frownburg worth an average of $150,000, Frownburg’s homeowners would, theoretically, pay twice as much in taxes to match the education spending of Happyville. And that does not take into account the fact that Happyville probably has more businesses paying property taxes. We’re guaranteeing a disadvantage for all those little Frownburgians.

I think we agree on the real problem with education in these parts—it’s not that we aren’t spending enough, it’s that we don’t spend it wisely. I am looking at a chart from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and it’s dated 2004, but it still tells me something pretty relevant: The U.S. ranked third in spending per secondary student, at almost $9,000 each. That’s behind only Switzerland and Norway, where, of course, kids have to ski to school, uphill both ways. Perhaps we should demand a bit more from our kids. But perhaps, too, we should acknowledge that if one district spends $16,000 per student and another spends $2,000, the average is still $9,000, which is a lot by global standards. But it’s just not equitable.

Fixing the system, though, isn’t easy. Even in states where attempts have been made to crack the property-tax model (Michigan, for example) and take school funding to the state level, there hasn’t been the political will required to come up with new taxes to make up for what was lost in property taxes. Here in Illinois, we’re watching critics excoriate our governor for spelling out the obvious—we need to fix our schools, and to do so, we need a major tax hike. He could wind up failing in his bid for re-election because of this.

You’re right, my fuzzy friend, in that a public education is not a guaranteed federal right. It is guaranteed by most state constitutions, and attempts to make it part of the federal constitution are usually undertaken strictly for show. But let’s not get caught up in semantics. We obviously need to educate our kids. To that end, the biggest problem—not the only problem, of course, but the one that demands immediate attention—remains inequality of funding, so that kids who live in affluent suburban areas get better educations than those in poor areas. That’s a problem that the Department of Education should be allowed to gain control over.

Yes, yes, I know: That would require beefing up another federal bureaucracy. But public education has grown into a national problem, and local municipalities and state governments have proven themselves to be unable to handle the issue. There would, of course, be skepticism about whether the federal government could really make things better. I’d suggest, though, that it certainly can’t do much worse.

Meet Me in the Middle

Despite our best intentions, we two learned hands haven’t done a damn thing to improve education in this country. Action items:

  1. Make kids want to learn. Encourage more creative, customized, adaptable curriculum. Utilize technology, and get businesses to pay for it (i.e., give them tax breaks). Keep the government out of it.
  2. Figure out a way to get our smartest minds into the education game. Top business schools should award full scholarships for students who promise to dedicate their careers to improving education for a certain amount of time.
  3. Use financial incentives to promote school choice. We’ll never tax our way out of any problem. People don’t like to pay taxes, especially educated wealthy people. Make education a true investment, not a financial burden—encourage tax breaks for education savings accounts that parents can use for greater school choice. This will create more demand for private education, driving broader adoption and higher-quality schools.

Educating my heretofore nonexistent children will cost more than my heretofore nonexistent home. I will work hard and find the funds to give my children every advantage I didn’t quite have. Where I come up short, I’ll invest the time and encouragement to foster the lifetime pursuit of enlightenment. I suggest we encourage each other as parents and future parents to do the same.


One thought on “That’s the Way You Debate: Education Reform

  1. I reckon that if we dun dun away with the tax exempshuns for religus institushuns and whatnot, there’d be a hole peckering of sirplus funds and money rewardings.
    America peoples plum care greater on religun than they ever dun for educashun.

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