The U.S. public education system sucks. It’s a virtual monopoly that as John Stossel writes in this piece, is run pretty much the same way North Korea or Cuba run their school systems. Stossel quotes Albert Shanker, once the head of the American Federation of Teachers, as saying, "It’s time to admit that the public education system operates like a
planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is
spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and
productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve.
It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."
What kills me is that we seem to think that throwing more money at the problem is the solution. Well, one need only look at the D.C. public schools to see that money is not the solution. D.C. spends $12,801 per student while the counties that comprise its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland spend between $9,374 (Prince William County, VA) and $16,464 (Arlington County, VA) respectively and yet easily out-perform the D.C. system. D.C. does have a very high percentage of poor families which is without a doubt a factor, but they also have chronic management problems and since the vast majority of families can’t afford private schools they’re stuck with what they’ve got.
The frustrating part of this to me is that all of us pay for schools with our taxes and if we don’t like how our schools are performing we pretty much get told, "tough." Even if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford private schools you’re essentially paying for your child’s education twice over (taxes + private school tuition) which is a rip-off. The only real option is to make sure you live in a neighborhood with good schools, but that in effect is a form of economic segregation.
When we lived in Virginia our kids were in the Prince William County school system (lowest per-pupil spending in the DC metro area) and we made sure we lived in a neighborhood that had good schools. The interesting thing to note is that our kids’ school was racially diverse, but economically we were all so uniform it was kind of weird. Everyone lived in the same kind of house, drove the same kind of car, participated in the same activities and most of all were highly involved in the schools. Most parent-teacher events were packed because both parents of most of the kids were there, and the kids did very well academically.
Just one school zone over, though, things got a little dicey. More poverty, gangs, lots of school fights and below-par academics. Same school system, same spending, but much lower performance. Unfortunately the parents didn’t have many options. If they wanted their children to go to a different school they had to apply for a spot, and if they were lucky enough to get one they had to find a way to get their kids to and from school on their own. Not a great option, especially if both parents were working, which in the D.C. area is the norm.
When we moved here to Forsyth County, NC we did a lot of research on the schools and moved to Lewisville because the elementary, middle and high schools that served our neighborhood were among the best the county had to offer. What we didn’t know at the time was that if we decided that we didn’t like our kids’ schools we could pick other schools for them to go to and the county would provide busing. The consequence of this is that the first week of school is very hectic as the school transportation system gets all the kinks worked out, and some kids do spend a great deal of time on the bus (my son’s best friend spends 1 1/2 hours on the bus each way), but the parents have options. It isn’t easy, but the school system makes it work.
Still, many people don’t want their kids to have to travel far to go to school, and many kids don’t want to leave their local schools because that’s where their friends are. That’s why I’d rather see a system where some creative, hard working educators could come in and start a new school that offers options for those kids. Maybe it would have a science and technology emphasis, or an emphasis on trades. Whatever. It would provide a viable alternative for the parents and they could choose where their tax dollars are spent (vouchers). If the schools are good, they survive. If they suck, they die.
Some people don’t like the idea of school vouchers for a variety of reasons, including the idea that many parochial (i.e. religious) private schools would end up getting public money, but from what I can see most of them (teachers unions, school administrators) are more afraid of losing their monopoly status and actually having to provide a superior service/product in a competitive market. As we’ve seen in other businesses they do have something to worry about; when competition is introduced to a closed market the big losers are the former monopolies and the big winners are the customers and the entrepreneurs. As a lifelong customer and entrepreneur you can guess which way I lean.