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Putting parents back in charge
Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 03/18/1999 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled
One of the great and ignored lessons of late-20th century education
policy is that the more the public schools are centralized, consolidated
and bureaucratized, the more they cost and the less they produce.
Within a centralized structure of education, regulations and
standards are endlessly promulgated — and constantly changed — by
those farthest from the individual child. Students are condemned to an
annual lottery over whether they win an inspiring teacher or are stuck
with a dolt.
A decentralized structure that begins with the individual student
works quite differently. It would make the current debates over teacher
tenure, teacher testing, merit pay, student performance, collective
bargaining, class size reduction, curriculum, teaching methodologies and
statewide standards simply irrelevant. It would assure that the best
teachers in the system would earn salaries in six figures, while the
worst teachers would be naturally encouraged to find work elsewhere –
without a single review board or standardized test. It would assure that
each student is matched to the best teachers for his or her specific
Let’s begin with some self-evident truths. First, education occurs
not at the state or local level. It occurs with the individual child.
Second, the most jealous guardians of education quality are not the
bureaucrats or the politicians or even the teachers. They are individual
parents looking after individual children. Third, every child has a
unique package of needs and talents, and no amount of requirements from
on high can precisely serve those needs. Fourth, it is no secret who the
good teachers are: the administrators and teachers know; so do the
If these assumptions are correct, it should follow that the current
structure of decision-making in public education is upside down. Two
simple but far-reaching changes are needed to turn the system right-side
up: first, restore to parents the ultimate choice over their child’s
teacher, subject only to academic qualifications and space limitations
set by the teacher; and second, pay teachers according to the number of
students they attract.
What is likely to happen in such a system? Obviously there will be a
high demand for the good teachers at the expense of the poor ones. The
best teachers will attract many students — to the point that either the
teacher or the parents believe he or she cannot effectively handle any
The current ratio of teacher salaries to student ADA is about $2,500
per pupil. A high school calculus teacher of Jaime Escalante’s caliber
would attract enough students to draw over a hundred thousand dollars of
salary annually. Teachers who are not particularly capable will draw far
fewer students, giving them both the financial incentive to improve, and
the smaller class size that they can cope with — or the encouragement
to find other employment — without hearings, lawsuits or even a snotty
What objections could be raised to such a system? Some might argue
that “not all parents would care.” Perhaps. For those few children, luck
would still determine whether they get a good teacher or a poor one. But
if they land with a poor teacher, that teacher will have a far smaller
class size and a huge financial incentive to improve.
Would this encourage “cut-throat competition” among teachers?
Hopefully. Competition breeds excellence. Let teachers with outstanding
credentials and performance records advertise their qualifications. Let
them specialize in methodologies they are most comfortable with. And let
the parents choose among them.
Would this destroy all the progress we’ve made toward class size
reduction? Well, sort of. But do we do students any favors by limiting
our best teachers to 20 students while the rest of our children are
consigned to teachers who simply baby-sit?
Would teachers merely vie for popularity rather than excellence? I
doubt that most parents would entrust such teachers with their children,
knowing that an easy “A” now would condemn their child to fail later.
Parents want their children to learn, and the teachers most popular with
parents are likely to be the most effective at teaching.
These two changes turn the administrative state — with the
bureaucracy at the top and the students and parents at the bottom –
into a free state, with the parents at the top and the bureaucracy
constantly driven by their wishes. They represent two different visions
of government — one authoritarian, the other consumer-driven.
Will this reform pass this session? Of course not. A philosopher once
said that new ideas must go through three phases. First they are
ridiculed, then viciously attacked and finally accepted as self-evident
Perhaps it is time to start that process. Of one thing we can be
sure, the same old approach to education will yield precisely the same
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