Kentucky charters, choice, and school funding
School Leader Book Reviews, 2011-2013

Is the "End Near" for education as we know it?

End is nearKevin D. Williamson's latest book, The End is Near and It's Going to be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure, is a thoughtful reflection on the nature and purpose of government, and how our current approach to public policy, while leading us down a path to financial ruin, could eventually point us toward much more effective alternatives.  One chapter of The End is Near is devoted to education, and Williamson's analysis - and his overall thesis - is worth the attention and consideration of practicing educators.

Williamson is correspondent for the flagship conservative magazine National Review.  While The End is Near does predict that our massive state and federal budgets, bankrolled by borrowing against our children's financial futures, will inevitably lead to public bankruptcy (think Detroit writ large - states like California and Illinois are close behind), it does so almost as an afterthought.  Williamson's book is more a consideration of what politics is really all about (and education in America is definitely political), and why it ultimately never works out like anybody intends or wants.  The lessons for educators are numerous.

Williamson makes the case that politics always, by definition, requires the threat of violent coercion to get things done.  The essence of government, in fact, is that it holds an absolute monopoly on violence.  This argument may strike readers as bizarre and radical, but there's no disputing the truth of it.  Any time you ask for something to be made a law, you are saying that, if someone chooses not to comply with your policy, you want armed agents of the state to make them obey, under threat of penalty ranging from the confiscation of property to incarceration or even death.

The coercive nature of education policy is obvious if we look for it.  We compel parents to have their children educated in some state-approved method under penalty of force.  We compel those same children to participate in adults' plans  for their education.  We compel all people who own property or have incomes to surrender some portion of their property for the upkeep of state-run schools, and those schools are technically compelled to comply with state educational directives under the same coerceive threat of force.  In states like Kentucky, we forbid under threat of force any alternative methods of financing schools, or the establishment of charter schools to provide alternate means of educational delivery.

There is no real value judgment in this observation.  Sometimes coercive violence might be the only viable stategy for solving a problem.  If someone is breaking into my house, I woudn't mind if armed agents of the state come to help me defend my property and family.  Perhaps you sincerely believe that without compulsory schooling Americans would be an ignorant, unproductive lot. 

But violence is the crudest form of problem solving and frequently fails to accomplish its intended goals, and education is a perfect example.  As Williamson points out, education in the U.S. is a truly socialized endeavor.  For the vast majority of families, the state operates a total monopoly on educational services, and like all monopolies, is marked by steadily skyrocketing costs and perpetually poor services that fail to meet the needs of individual students (for more on this perspective, see Williamson's Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism). 

This monopoly leads educators to confuse their product for their consumer.  We naturally assume that what schools "produce" is an educated citizenry (always defined by the goals of the state, not by the individual child or family).  In fact, education is an industry like any other.  What schools actually produce, however, is a packaged set of learning opportunities (chocked full of philosophical biases and agendas) and the consumers are the families who utilize those services. 

That most families have no choice about where they get their educational services, and may not be happy at all with the package of learning opportunities offered by their assigned school, does not change the fact that education is an industry.  It just happens to be a socialized industry, replete with a highly inefficient monopoly (as all socialized industries are).  One size does not fit all, but it must when consumers have no choice (just ask survivors of the Soviet regime, the closest analogy to American education).

As Williamson points out, that a small number of affluent families choose to send their kids to private schools does not mean we have meaningful school choice.  In fact, their choice means these families are mostly uninvested in the improvement of public schools, which continue to consume their tax dollars but don't have to educate their children.  Meanwhile, as I noted in a recent post, Williamson makes the compelling case that poor families bear a disproportionate burden in paying for public schools because they are more likely to rent, meaning they pay the full cost of their landlords' property taxes without the income tax benefits, while receiving the poorest quality educational services.

The only way to improve the condition of schooling in America, Williamson argues, is to break the state monopoly on education and let a real market flourish. "All serious education reform programs must put private citizens -- students and their families -- in charge of appropriating education funds, rather than political bodies," he writes.  Any step in this direction, from charter schools to universal vouchers, is a positive move toward letting the public investment of tax dollars (which again the poor bear most heavily) follow the students.  Such an approach already is used with Pell grants and the GI Bill in higher education.

The consequence of this policy is that more families will get more of the kind of education they want.  Williamson notes that one size does not have to fit all when parents have a broad array of educational options to select from.  "Indeed, it is a mark of the absurdity of our current thinking that we imagine a single form of K-12 education is appropriate for nearly every child in the country--we have nine hundred kinds of shampoo, and one outdated, nineteenth-century model of schooling," Williamon writes.

As I have written elsewhere,

I would like to see communities with schools featuring a veritable supermarket of educational approaches.  Some schools could offer a classical, "Great Books" curriculum, others could emphasize technology (maybe with hybrid, online learning opportunities), others could promote a Montessori-type approach, while others still could focus on vocational and technical training.  Some kids can homeschool and others can enter "early college" programs that greatly accelerate the progress of their learning.

The current models for educating students no longer serve the needs of many and ultimately must be replaced.  But the likelihood of such reforms under the current state monopoly is practically nil.  Our massive, top-down, federally-mandated school improvement efforts (akin to the Soviet Five Year Plans for managing the economy) are almost certainly doomed to failure.  A market approach to education recognizes that politicians and bureaucrats cannot deliver learning that meets every child's need every day, but individual teachers and individual schools - chosen by individual families - can.

Besides the obvious benefits to promoting real educational markets, Williamson notes that our current approach to education is fiscally unsustainable.  Economic reality will demand that we get creative about how we provide the public good of "schooling," and opening up educational markets (where non-state-run schools typically provide a higher quality product for less money per pupil) is an excellent place to start.

Unless teachers believe they got into the business of schooling in order to prop up a massive state and federal education monopoly, they have nothing to lose by embracing school choice.  On the contrary, educators have everything to gain in terms of gaining the autonomy to teach as they desire, provided they can find the students to match what they are delivering.  Reading The End is Near would be a good primer on how to start.


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