Posted by on October 18, 2012

(I apologize in advance for this tardy posting, but I have been trying to update some of the techie stuff with my blog and I have fallen behind.  Careful readers will notice my sly attempt to weave in some content from the recent presidential debate to hide the obviously dated nature of the rest of the blog.)

I hope that everyone saw Condoleeza Rice’s speech at the Republican National Convention.  I didn’t watch the entire convention, but I caught a few of the speeches on YouTube and hers was the highlight for me.  All the more surprising because I had never been a big Condi fan, finding her wooden and artificial, particularly that ever-pasted smile.  But she was inspired on this evening.  She rocked the house.

There was a lot to like in her speech.  First, her focus on domestic strength as the source of international prestige and influence, with phrases like  “a country that loses control of its finances loses control of its destiny” and “no country, not even a rising China, can do the harm to us that we can do to ourselves”.  There was her re-affirmation of immigration as a source of domestic success if it is done well and if we continue to “welcome the world’s most ambitious people”.  And her mentioning of energy independence, including through innovative alternative energies, as a key to our freedom of action in foreign affairs.

But when Condi really got me is when she turned to education and what she called the “crisis in K12 education” that is a “threat to the very fabric of who we are”.    She correctly identified, doubtlessly from her own experience, education as the basis of our belief that, while people often cannot control their circumstances, they can control their response to those circumstances.  She also said that, unless we fix K12 education, we risk to “tear apart the fabric of who we are and cement the turn towards entitlement and grievance”.   She quite rightly finished this segment of her speech with the statement that improving K12 is “the civil rights issue of our day”.

And what was her solution?  Very simple: “we need to give parents greater choice, particularly poor parents whose kids, very often minorities, are trapped in failing neighborhood schools.”  And we all know what she meant by greater choice; it is code for a school voucher program in one form or another.  To see a successful minority woman, the proud daughter of a public school teacher, stand up and say that “the civil rights issue of our day” is that our public school system is a failure and it must be replaced by a system of greater choice, was a thrilling and all-too-rare moment of truth in American politics.

Why would anyone imagine that a public school system could be anything but a failure?  Why does anyone believe that providing education would be one of the core competencies of a government?  It reminds me of the day I realized, while living in London, that England’s National Health Service meant that the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, etc., were actually employees of the third largest government bureaucracy in the world, after the People’s Army of China and the Indian National Railways.  Is is any wonder that they routinely remove the wrong kidney?

Here’s the point:  Much bad public policy comes from the failure to recognize that any activity can be grouped into one of three categories:

  • things the government should do itself, involving mainly the legitimized use of force and the provision of law;
  • things the government should pay for, involving public goods that cannot be efficiently provided by the private sector; and
  • things the government should leave alone, being everything else.

Now, why would anyone believe that education falls into the first category and not the second?  Why would anyone imagine that any organization, public or private, would be good at providing services ranging from repairing potholes to providing kindergarten lessons?  Any private sector organization that attempted to claim such a wide range of competence would rightly be held up to derision by both conservatives and liberals, yet we tolerate this in the public sector with one of the most important tasks that we have: educating our future.

In the first presidential debate, President Obama repeatedly stated the goal of hiring 100,000 more math and science teachers.  Now, maybe this is a good idea.  But on the other hand, maybe we need 30,000 school nutritionists and only 70,000 new math and science teachers, since if the kids got off their sugar highs, they would actually be able to concentrate in class.  Maybe we don’t need any more math and science teachers; maybe we just need to pay more for each one so that we can upgrade their quality.  Maybe all of this is nonsense because, to be perfectly honest, I really don’t know which specific policies we need to improve our K12 education.  But then, neither does President Obama.  The big difference between Obama and me — well, let’s not get too personal: between President Obama and anyone who believes in markets and consumer choice instead of the government — is that we are willing to admit our ignorance.  We are humble enough not to pretend that someone sitting in Washington, responsible for everything from the defense of the Benghazi consulate to dishing out loans to Solyndra, actually knows how many teachers, and of what kind, to hire.  We are humble enough to realize that any attempt to be a jack of all of these trades, would certainly mean that we would be a master of none.

I have never met President Obama, but it is widely reported that he does not do humble.

You see, I would rather have these decisions made by hundreds, or thousands, of private schools competing to provide a specified core curriculum in return for vouchers (and, if need be, parental top-ups).  I would rather give those “poor parents whose kids, very often minorities, are trapped in failing neighborhood schools” an alternative.  I would rather bring the same private sector educational skills that have made private American colleges and universities the envy of the world into K12 education, which is the laughingstock of the world.  And the only effective way to do this is through a voucher program.

Can we make public K12 education better?  Sure, but we would just be putting “lipstick on the pig”.    The system is fundamentally flawed and must be exchanged.  Given the importance of education to our knowledge-based economy and future, I cannot think of a more important and more urgent reform.

Roger Barris, Switzerland

 

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