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The big conundrum after the collapse of the Soviet Union was how to
move from socialism to capitalism. The U.S. faces the same problem now
with the public-school
system. Everyone knows that the status quo has got to go. With the
newest report that
most high school graduates can’t even write a coherent sentence, what
else are we to conclude? The questions that remain are, first, how are
we to manage the transition
from a communist system of education to something else? And, second,
what should
that something else be?

These are the exact questions faced by Russia and its former client
states in the early
1990s. The sad truth is that none of them managed the transition well.
Each state made
its own mistakes. Russia freed prices before privatizing industry and
ended up on the
IMF dole. The Czech Republic tried to privatize while leaving the state
banking system
intact, which ended up owning formerly public industries. East Germany
adopted a
West German welfare state it couldn’t afford. None of them did anything
about their
socialist health-care systems. And so on.

What do all of these experiments in transition have in common?
Despite the continuing
outcry against “shock therapy,” none of these states went far enough,
fast enough
toward a full market economy. They ended up creating mixed systems –
part capitalist,
part socialist — that have foundered on their own internal
contradictions ever since. In each case, too, the leaders of the
transition have borne the brunt of a public backlash
that has improperly blamed the free market.

So far, the only options for school reform that have entered the
political arena consist of
a mixture of public and private means. If the experiments so far are an
indication, they
will not accomplish a transition, but merely spread the problems of the
current system in
new directions and create new problems.

Let’s dispense with the first reform plan immediately. The idea of
federal vouchers for
education was recently suggested by John McCain, whose website brags
about all the
education pork he’s voted for. Do you want the central state running
your private
school? That’s precisely what would result. The idea might appeal to a
person who
thinks the military model is ideal for all of society. But if you don’t
think that the feds
ought to be collecting taxes to subsidize and control private academies,
federal vouchers
are no answer. Conservatives ought to be on the front lines fighting
such a scheme.

Another variety would contract out the present school system to
private firms. The
major advantage here is cost. It turns out that private firms can
administer schools with
better results at a fraction of the cost. This is why the Dallas
Independent School
District is considering inviting a company called the Edison Project,
which operates 51
schools in 14 states, to come in and try their hand at educating kids.

Would contracting out (please don’t call it privatization!) be an
improvement? Not in the
long term. Taxpayers will still be on the hook, paying for education
they may or may
not be using, and the government would still be in control. Moreover,
the Edison
Project will be forever hamstrung by the requirement that its schools
meet state
educational standards. That means a huge focus on raising the scores in
basic skills, but,
like the public schools now, neglecting students, or sending them to
babysitting
programs, once they have shown competence in those basics.

Finally, as with all contracting out, such a system would be rife
with corruption, as
potential bidders exchange favors with bureaucrats and politicians for
the contracts. The
people paying the tuition are not parents, but employees of the state.
And the students
themselves remain a captive audience, coerced by the state to be in the
classroom even
when they and their parents have other ideas in mind.

What about charter schools? Under this system, the state creates
schools which it then
permits private managers to administer partially on their own terms. The
only difference
between charter schools and regular public schools is the locus of
control within the
school itself. Seems fair enough, until you consider the impact that
charter schools have
on authentic private schools. In Grand Rapids, Michigan,
tuition-charging Christian
schools are losing students to the no-tuition charter schools. This has
dramatically
increased financial strains on those attempting to educate on a free
enterprise basis.

Once all the private schools are driven out of business, it would be
very easy for
education regulators to rip away the right of the charter school to
control its curriculum.
Already they must accept all comers based on a lottery. And it’s only a
matter of time
before the ACLU is successful at getting the courts to prevent charter
schools from
including the religious context in history and other subjects.

All three of these measures — vouchers, contracting out, and charter
schools — suffer from the same problem: They take us only half way
there, and threaten to discredit the whole reform movement because of
their failures. They do not come to terms with the crucial reality that
state involvement in education is the source of the failure in the first
place. Until we stop attempting to supply educational services according
to the socialist
principle, we will not address the real issue.

In the ideal world, government would have nothing to do with
education. But that is not
to say there aren’t interim reforms worth undertaking. All regulations
on private and
home-schooling could be repealed, giving them complete autonomy to teach
students
without maddening and often malign interference from bureaucrats.
Compulsory
schooling can be repealed. Tuition payments of any sort and to any
school could be
made tax-deductible. Funding and control of public schools could be
entirely localized.
Right now, the Department of Education could be abolished.

That such small steps appear to the newest class of education
reformers as too radical
tells you all you need to know about their misunderstanding of the
problem, and their
lack of moral courage. Like the economic reformers in the days after the
fall of
communism, they have yet to figure out that all attempts to involve
government in
education have failed and will continue to fail. We need a clean break
with the past.

As Ludwig von Mises wrote in 1929, “the state, the government, the
laws must not in
any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds
must not be
used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be
left entirely to
parents and to private associations and institutions.”

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