Monday, December 29, 2008

the engine of the republic

The American tradition of public school is almost as old as the Union itself. The first major proponent of a strong public school system was Thomas Jefferson, who believed that in order for a Republic to function its populace must have at least a rudimentary education. The effect of a poorly educated populace would be poor choices at the voting booth—a fear of Jefferson's that, many would argue, despite our efforts at universal education, has already come to pass.

Over the years the public school system has changed and evolved with advances in science, politics, population and demographics. Basic subjects such as arithmetic and reading skills have broadened to include philosophy, art, theatre, and myriad different languages. One-room school houses have fallen by the wayside, replaced by gargantuan structures housing sometimes thousands of students.

Yet, for all the change, one thing has remained constant, and that is the public nature of the system itself. Private schools have existed alongside this system, and many have argued that these schools have done a better job educating their students, though this is debatable and difficult to prove. One thing is certain—as funding for public schools decreases, and waste in the system grows, students pay the price. Subject after subject is deemed “unnecessary” and classrooms become overcrowded.

The landscape of the American public school is changing once again, and this is probably for the best. Charter schools, magnet schools, and other innovations that seek to improve education and address the needs of individual students are becoming commonplace. The tradition of public schools in America has been one of continuous improvement. It has been a struggle, and yet modern public opinion has shifted to such a degree that many people no longer believe the outcome is worth the effort.

A debate has re-emerged recently over the notion of how to best resolve what is increasingly seen as the dilapidation of the American public education effort. The debate has been parceled in terms of school choice. Proponents of school choice argue that the public system is failing in so many ways that the only way to fix it is to replace it altogether, or to force the system to reinvent itself through competition. Opponents of this view believe the problems identified with public schools are exaggerated, and that competition is exactly the wrong approach to take. Rather, the continued lack of funding has lead to any decline in the system.

Indeed, the controversy over public schools is as old as the tradition of public school itself. Adam Smith was the first to argue in favor of school vouchers, a cause taken up later by Milton Friedman, and many of Friedman's students and successors. It has now become a mainstay of the modern conservative movement, with little room for debate.

Smith and Friedman argued that the public school system should follow the rules of the free market, and that the best way to do this would be to put the public schools in direct competition with their private counterparts. Conservative theorists today argue that taxpayers who choose not to send their children to public school ought to receive a tax subsidy, or voucher, to help pay for the private school of their choice. The voucher would be paid to the school of the taxpayer's choice, rather than directly into the public school system. This creates a very immediate competitive dynamic between the public and private spheres, as the funding of one is entirely dependent upon the funding of the other.

This competition, in theory, should lead to more efficient public schools, forced by the market to make the necessary hard decisions that will lead to better schools fought with less waste and flush with innovation and common sense—an outcome obviously preferable for taxpayer and student alike.

Still, such an argument does not take into account many of the obvious repercussions of a competitive landscape in which the public school system rather than improving vis a vis increased competition, is actually outperformed to such a degree that it is no longer a viable option. In other words, what if the end result of school choice is not better public schools, but no public schools at all?

When discussing competition in education, it is important to note the many inherent disadvantages the public school system faces in a leveled playing field with private industry. Public schools are forced to accept any and all who come knocking. This is their greatest disadvantage, and their most important function. Public schools accept students based not at all on merit, but on the very basic fact that they are citizens of this country, and in need of an education.

This also means public schools must accept all special-needs students, and find a way to pay for their very specialized education. One child with cerebral palsy costs a great deal more than an unimpaired child. Whereas a private school simply need not accept such disabled students, a public school must—and while there are, indeed, private schools that specialize in treating these special needs students, still there is no evidence that they have anywhere near the capacity to treat all of them, nor that vouchers would in any way cover those costs.

Merit-based admissions put the public school at a basic disadvantage as well. Public schools do not admit students based on test scores or admittance exams, and so they are left to the mercy of chance—and often chance is little more than the immutable circumstance of neighborhood. Due to the inequitable nature of school-funding, wherein the vast majority of a school's budget is made up of property taxes, this simply compounds the fact that in poorer neighborhoods where tax revenues are lower, test scores and student performance is also inevitably low.

Proponents of school choice argue that this is exactly the reason why vouchers are needed—that students in these poorer neighborhoods would no longer face the misfortune of attending their neighborhood's public school. Then again, perhaps a rethinking of the way in which these schools are funded would do a great deal more to help a great many more students attain a proper education. After all, if the disadvantage of poverty is crippling even before a child enters the school system, how can these disadvantaged children be expected to compete in a merit-based private school system? Can we truly expect these students to test competitively against a far more affluent demographic?

If this is hard to imagine, than it is even harder to presume that somehow the best private schools will suddenly begin accepting students the public school system can barely manage. Such acceptance and socialization of private schools would devalue them to unacceptable levels. The only alternative would be private schools that accepted the bottom of the barrel, as it were. Such schools, it can be imagined, paid for almost wholly by vouchers, and lacking any of the essential oversight present in the public school system, would hardly be the paragons of success that school choice proponents would have us believe.

With these inherent disadvantages, throwing the public schools into the arena of the free market would have many unintended, but disastrous, consequences.

For instance, let us imagine a town somewhere in America, which we shall call Town A. Imagine there are one hundred children enrolled in Town A's private school this year, out of one thousand total, and next year school vouchers will go into effect for $3000 a head. This means, that all at once, with no change whatsoever in school enrollment, $300,000 will be drained from Town A's public school budget.

There remain only one hundred students attending the private school. Likewise, the same number of children remain enrolled in public schools. Only now there is substantially less money for the remaining public school students, and substantially more for the private school students.

In the end the effect of this will be manifold.

First, public schools will face budget cuts, layoffs, and decreased enrollment. Students will have a harder time taking "unnecessary" subjects like history, art, theater, music, and so forth. This will have the long-term effect of “dumbing down” future generations of Americans, making it more difficult for Americans to compete in the global economy.

Second, vouchers will likely lead the better private schools, and perhaps many of the mediocre ones, to raise their tuition. There will be more money in the hands of people who can already afford a private education, so these schools will have no reason not to raise their rates, as well as admittance standards. This is why a need-based "grant" system, similar to the Pell Grant, might work better, though even that could cause the price of education to increase.

Third, it is true that vouchers would eventually lead to the opening of new private schools. Town A might have a second private school open and another one hundred students admitted (draining another $300,000 from the public schools). This still leaves the remaining eight hundred students without school choice; with further budget cuts; a higher ratio of problem students; and an even more burgeoning degree of special needs costs. Class disparity simply widens further under this outcome, especially if the private schools continue to admit students based on merit—arguably the very point of private school—vs. lottery or location-based admissions.

School voucher proponents believe that ideally, somehow all one thousand of Town A's students will be able to go to private schools paid for with government vouchers. This may very well be the outcome of the collapse of the public schools, as such a collapse, however gradual, would lead to market solutions for education.

This begs the question, however: if everyone attends private school, will we not see the very same decline in the private sector that we've seen in public schools? After all, the low end of the scale will be the least funded--perhaps solely paid for by vouchers, and populated largely by the lowest achievers and the poorest student demographic. The better schools will also be paid for by vouchers, but their tuition will be higher and thus inundated with a great deal more private money. The gap will be similar to what it is today, and likely much worse, only now students will not have the safety net of the public school system, or the guarantee of a free education. Nor will they have the democratic protection of elected officials taking stewardship of their children's education. Accountability will be all in capital, as accountability always is in the free market.

So the question inevitably comes down to our vision of what education should amount to for our children. Do we envision a robust American public school system—the sort imagined long ago by Thomas Jefferson and others of our Founding Fathers, to be the engine of our Republic? Or have we decided to give up on that institution? There is little doubt that improvements can, and should, be made in our public schools, but there seems also to be great potential for a system of public education that is at once efficient, free, and competitive not only with America's private schools, but with schools the world over, private and public alike.

Vouchers do not represent the whole of the school choice debate any more than Milton Friedman represents the whole of our economic debate. Michael Oakeshott famously wrote that conservatism is a disposition, not an ideology. The conservative approach to any problem is to favor tradition over reaction, the wisdom of generations over the singularity of isolated and abstract reason. In other words, to favor what has been proven to work over what simply might work in theory.

This seems to cut to the heart of the issue of school choice. The ideology of privatization over public administration has become such a driving force in conservative debate that we have forgotten that there are things, even in the public sphere, that deserve preservation — that “complete the circle” as Jefferson once remarked. Oakeshott wrote that conservatism is “a disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for.” Perhaps the loss of our public schools, a tradition as old as this nation itself, is something of which we ought to be acutely aware.

There is room in this debate to consider innovations, improvements, and necessary and long overdue changes to the way in which our schools are operated and administered. Merit pay, charter schools, and trade schools for those students the least likely to attend college, but who could benefit enormously from practical skill training or apprenticeships, are all ideas that deserve careful consideration. There is certainly a case to be made for poor kids to receive grants to attend private schools—though this really isn’t a “school choice” matter so much as a question of welfare.

Indeed, this entire debate deserves as much careful consideration as possible. Rather than latching on to a talking point or an ideology, or turning this into a political gambit—essentially, rather than couching this debate in terms of economics or politics at all—we should view this instead as a matter of tradition and civilization, of preservation of that which has worked for generations, and can be made to work again for generations to come. Sadly, this has become a debate in which the only acceptable conservative stance on the issue is that of school choice, quite frankly, is not always a liberating thing.

I find myself wondering how this can be, how an entire discussion of such a delicate matter can be confined so utterly to one dogmatic response. On this matter I call to mind another great conservative thinker, and in doing so find that I, too, am standing “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Our public schools are a great American tradition, and they are worth preserving. They are worth the struggle. Let us not be too hasty in our attempt to dismantle them, lest we lose them altogether. Such a loss would be a historical one. On this matter especially, let us be conservative in our disposition, not merely conservative in what has become the generally accepted talking points and political strategy. Such a debate transcends politics, after all, and rightly so.