Public Education is Socialism
"It's time to admit that public education 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."
Albert Shanker, President, American Federation of Teachers
What is Socialism?
I am amazed at how often my online arguments must detour to define socialism
for people who vehemently support its principles yet just as vehemently deny
that they are socialists. Therefore, to head off confusion, I'll put a working
definition up front:
Socialism: "Government mandated social engineering (shaping society or
shaping individuals to conform to a societal ideal)."
On the political left, that especially involves economic control up to and
including collective ownership and operation of commercial enterprise. If
you have a different or better definition, or if you can help me to refine
mine, please let me know.
Ever since public schools were first organized, various groups have used (or
attempted to use) them to mold future citizens and thereby shape society to
their own ideals. You can probably think of a few yourself. I bet it's easy
to think of the abuses that run counter to your own ideals. Are you open minded
enough to confess any applications by your philosophical allies? There are
so many dimensions to ideological school content that I plan to write about
them separately in Propaganda.
In addition, as agents of the state, teachers are sometimes asked to do more
than teach. State legislators are also trying to draw them into the police
state and the nanny state. See Reason Magazine's Mental
Detector, and Home Invasion.
By taxing residents in advance and then giving away education at no additional
charge, government is able to claim a virtual monopoly on K-12 education in
almost every school district. The government owns the land and the buildings.
With very few exceptions, government operates the facilities and employs all
of the teachers.
Public education is government owned and operated, and ideologues of various
stripes work continuously to effect social engineering by controlling curricula,
text books etc. Therefore, public education is socialism.
I feel like the cow in Gary Larsen's Far Side cartoon who suddenly realizes,
"Hey! This is grass! We've been eating grass!"
To defend public education, you must first prove that socialism is superior
to capitalism. You will never do that. Every tactical claim you make about
some classroom level detail will be moot because capitalism can always
do better or do the same for lower cost. Always.
We wouldn't allow the government to dispense religion or monopolize food, and
we came to our senses in time to avoid nationalizing health care. Why do we
continue to tolerate government monopolization of K-12 education? Why to we
tolerate a government institution overseeing and second guessing the raising
of most families' children? It's an abomination. We should kill it.
Total government control is too extreme. A system where government
pays while free enterprise owns and operates it is a much more balanced and
moderate compromise between the society's collective interests and
citizen's individual liberties.
Is it any wonder that all of today's public education problems look just like
the plagues on every socialized business ever to exist anywhere?
- It has big, self-perpetuating bureaucracy and large, centralized facilities
instead of smaller, convenient ones.
- It induces uniformity and inhibits variety.
- Costs are high, but many facilities and equipment are poorly maintained
and wages are low.
- Tedious teacher certification selects the bureaucratic and protects them
from competition from the intelligent. Read Thomas Sowell's article.
- Resource allocation is heavily unbalanced toward the politically strong,
and there's a go-to-hell attitude toward everyone else.
- There are shortages: overcrowding and lack of materials both trivial and
- Employees are unhappy
- Customers (parents) are unhappy
- Powerful, entrenched political organizations like the teachers' union
(moguls) shriek continuously about the unknown dangers of changing to
anything else. If you ask me, their fear of structural change makes them
way too conservative.
- Perhaps worst of all, a politicized system compromises teaching by adding
various social engineering and police tasks to teachers' job descriptions,
and the control is becoming more centralized every year.
Is it any wonder that the organizational structure and delivery mode are mostly
unchanged after almost two centuries? How many generations of America's disadvantaged
must suffer the cycle of ignorance begetting poverty before education's self
serving elite confess that the solution is in liberty, not bureaucracy? America
needs a radical liberal to liberate American schools the way Margaret Thatcher
liberated Britain's nationalized industries in the 1980s.
Free Market Power
A competitive free market will give many immediate and far ranging benefits,
some going far beyond education:
- Economy: If we were wise enough to reduce the government's involvement
to just investigating reported fraud and recording quarterly enrollment
(not daily or hourly attendance taken by hand like the idiotic bureaucracy
does now), we could then eliminate 99% of the government education bureaucracy,
thereby eliminating over 50% of the cost of K-12 education in this country.
Trimming the bloated bureaucracy would yield tax cuts, higher teacher
salaries, and improved facilities/equipment in schools.
- Secondary economic effects: Reforming a major segment of our economy would
spread economic dividends far and wide. Putting all of those former bureaucrats
to work in productive enterprises (like picking lettuce) would
fuel explosive economic growth all around. Government waste is mind boggling,
and every year we allow that waste in education costs all of us dearly.
- Investment Induction: Private enterprise buys its own land, buildings
and equipment. That means no more tax levies to build new schools. Not
only that, but most communities will get a huge, one-time windfall when
it auctions off all of its schools and the land under them.
- Improved Facilities: Private Enterprise tends to buy better stuff and
take better care of it, at least when and where it makes a difference.
Government stuff tends to be crap, unless they paid too much for it. If
you ever see top quality government property, then you should ask how
much it cost, but first make sure you are sitting down.
- Liberty: Consumers rule directly over what they choose to buy, voting
with their feet and their dollars. It is the most free and democratic
system devised by human kind.
- Motivation: Entrepreneurs are motivated not only by the quest for profit
but by the risk of bankruptcy (Note: The profit margin in any sector tends
to be proportional to its perceived level of risk). Managers must tread
a fine line between cutting costs and maintaining high quality. Contrarily,
in government, bureaucrats are motivated to build as big of an agency
under themselves as they can. Big departments mean promotions, and spending
all of one's budget is rewarded by increased funding in subsequent years.
- Culling: Unnecessary or overly costly versions of goods and services are
ruthlessly driven out of existence by bankruptcy or submission to competing
management. That includes schools that yield to extreme activists, unlike
public school boards that can be compromised by special interest groups
and just go on taxing. In government, unpopular goods and services persist
year in and year out as politicians make promises they can't keep, and
bureaucrats waste ever bigger bundles of money building ever expanding
empires to fail to solve problems they themselves created, and then tell
taxpayers to cough up another lung to pay for the same things they were
supposed to get from the last tax increase.
- Participation: Even apathetic parents will need to make an occasional
decision, inducing them to pay at least some attention. The odds are high
that they'll stumble into a school that encourages them further.
- Structural Evolution: The system will become much more dynamic than when
centrally controlled, rapidly adapting to new technologies and other changes.
Government inertia is mind boggling, and its strangle hold on education
is costing our society dearly. See Innovation.
- Diversification: Many providers can
bring many variations of a product or service to market simultaneously
to satisfy a wide variety of tastes. In government, one complex compromise
is imposed on nearly everyone, and it satisfies almost nobody. With a
free system, we would no longer be saddled with a lowest common denominator
curriculum designed to offend nobody. Instead, we could give full flower
to each and every culture that has a following. A free system will promote
a wide variety to choose from. Instead of everyone being stuck with their
school board's decision on whether to have a football team or a theater
program (or both), each family will be free to choose a school that caters
to its own tastes. As long as government isn't dictating design choices,
it doesn't force consensus where none is needed.
- Peace: When every family can get what it wants, then none will need to
force their preferences on others just to get something for themselves.
The school board fights over religion and budgetary trade-offs should
What about charter schools?
They're a slight reversal of government centralization, but they are still
at the mercy of government (see Reason's "Threatened
by Success"). Therefore, charter schools merely turn back the clock
a few years without curing the fundamental flaw in the system: As long as
government owns and operates the schools, education decisions will be driven
by political dynamics to the detriment of prosperity and independent citizenship.
Government is like ivy; merely trimming it back is but a temporary respite
from its stranglehold. The signs of government's willingness to incrementally
creep into charter programs are already appearing. Just keep watching, and
you'll realize that charter schools merely demonstrate the economic
benefits of independence; they are not a permanent, long term solution. Charter
schools are an improvement, so they're worth having, but they should not deter
us from demanding the correct solution of total, irrevocable privatization.
Why can't public and private coexist, as with colleges?
When I was younger, I couldn't understand why anyone would pay big bucks for
a private college when public was available for next to nothing. Only later
did I realize that not everyone could get into top public universities, that
I had been very fortunate to get high test scores and grades in one of the
very best public school districts in the nation.
At the college level, public and private coexist, but there are some special
forces at work, and still there are cracks:
- There have been extreme shortages at the few public universities that
have high rankings. If you can't qualify, then paying dearly for an obscure
private college is a way to get a good education in spite of weak scores.
- Public universities are under some pressure from privates, so
some are not as horrible as their K-12 counterparts.
- Public universities aren't as "free" as K-12 schools; they charge
some fees and sometimes tuition.
- Truancy laws don't force people to go to college based on age. People
are free to work first and go to college later, if ever.
- A college education has a shorter payback period.
- Snobbery: Some families simply don't want their kids mixing with riff
raff. They can control that somewhat in K-12 by living in exclusive suburbs,
but college is a regional mixture.
- Government and other institutions offer grants and loans that students
can take to private colleges, even religious ones. So I turn the question
back at whomever asks it: Government grants money to students to go to
private college, so why don't we do the same thing for K-12?
- Where public universities are highly regarded, they are horribly expensive.
While I attended UC Berkeley, I was shocked to learn that its budget per
student was higher than Stanford's. Of course, that included all of the
bureaucracy. Berkeley's overhead was much, much more than Stanford's.
The Berkeley is only able to be as decent as it is because it is fabulously
costly to the taxpayers of California.
Ironically, it was because of California's high taxes that I took myself and
my knowledge elsewhere as soon as I started earning above average money in
my career. Perhaps the State of Washington should thank California for first
financing my education and then driving me out.
Copyright 2003-2008 by Jeffry R. Fisher: Permission is granted to reproduce
this article in whole, but only in combination with attribution, the
original title, the original URL, and this copyright notice.