It’s often touted as the great disconnect; the great dilemma. We don’t want budget cuts to impact our school kids or teachers, but we don’t want high taxes either. We citizens must be stupid and naïve.
This is not the dilemma it appears to be. The myth is that unless revenues are increased, teachers, children, first responders, the elderly, and (insert sympathetic constituencies here) will suffer. That may be true, but not for the reasons often cited.
There is undeniable waste and redundancy in all state spending, especially education spending. Most of this waste supports some very nice people who believed that they had achieved lifetime security by landing a job with government. When deficits loom, the sympathy sirens begin to howl. Without more money the children will suffer. Without more money the teachers will suffer. The universally beloved become human shields. If they asked for higher taxes and fees to save the lucrative jobs and generous pensions of mid-level state bureaucrats in the department of education, would it generate the same wailing demonstrations, protests, and bake sales?
It’s pointless to debate whether public schools are over-funded or underfunded, because the current public school model is fiscally insatiable by design, and by the laws of human nature. What if we could shake the paradigm of big, costly government building complexes staffed by entrenched government employees and micro-managed by a bureaucracy of entrenched government overseers from afar? Then, maybe we could efficiently offer a quality education to all students that is publicly provided for.
But perhaps not publicly provided.
Parents and educators should take a lesson from the public housing assistance experience. Big government housing projects were wisely eradicated and replaced by Section 8 Housing assistance, redeemable with any landlord who has been strictly qualified to participate in the program. By sacrificing the career gravy train of the government overseers, custodians and architects of the housing projects, the Section 8 vouchers now give needy families a choice. The program also forces them to wade into the marketplace and shop on their own behalf. Where once they were herded, they now must participate. The result: less cost to the taxpayer, more local control, and more safety, security, choice, and dignity to the beneficiary.
The Bogeyman of Profiteers in Public Education
Imagine for a moment a different system of government nutritional assistance to those beneficiaries of SNAP cards (food stamps). Imagine the current system of directly reloading funds to a person’s SNAP card scrapped entirely.
In its place, imagine public cafeterias in every town nationwide. Bigger cities need several. Each beneficiary is assigned to their neighborhood cafeteria. Every day, beneficiaries must travel to their cafeteria to receive prepared meals meeting government’s accepted nutrition standards. Meals are cooked by credentialed cooks, the facility serviced by government staff. Every community elects a Board of Nutrition with funding requirements of its own. Each state establishes costly bureaucracies to administer the menu decisions, acquisition & delivery of raw groceries, and oversight of food preparation & distribution. Wear and tear is factored in as a necessary cost of government nutritional support. The government cafeteria building employs a permanent staff of cooks, servers, janitors, custodians, sanitation inspectors, pest control technicians, and other forms of building and organizational maintenance support. Periodically, the entire facility itself needs to be razed and replaced. A whole new upgraded facility will need to be constructed. Taxpayers will be asked to vote for nutrition bonds…for the children!
Is there anyone reading this proposal who would argue that the above system would be less costly or less wasteful of precious nutrition dollars than the current system of simply reloading the beneficiaries’ SNAP cards every month and empowering them to shop for themselves?
Current SNAP card holders make their own nutritional choices when they go to the grocery store to purchase their food. Sometimes, less than the best nutritional choices are made. Yet on balance, the current SNAP system is efficient, and far less costly than the monolithic model above. Most importantly, the SNAP card system empowers all cardholders with the ability and duty to become a stakeholder in their family’s nutritional decision-making, with far more dignity than having government force-feed the family what a bureaucrat has decided they must eat.
Yet, when these beneficiaries go to Raley’s, Safeway or Walmart to purchase groceries for their family, the store makes a profit. Does that make the SNAP Card system more wasteful or immoral than the government cafeteria model described above? Is this the unthinkable blasphemy that we are warned against by the teachers unions, when they spend tens of millions of dollars in teachers’ dues to buy radio ads denouncing billionaires who seek to plunder public education money? Whose gravy train are those union ads really seeking to protect?
Participation and responsibility was reawakened in the public housing system, and it was thankfully never vanquished from the nutritional assistance system. Human nature and the natural quest for self determination and dignity cannot be lobbied or collectively bargained out of existence. It always awaits its release.
I vote to release it.
The False Choice between Inefficiency and Profiteers
The debate around school choice need not be limited to a perpetual war of words between failing mediocre state models and greedy capitalist profiteers. This gets us nowhere and creates the false impression that these are the only two choices. They are not.
Much of the current private school sector, whether for-profit or nonprofit, is merely a more expensive refuge for the public school refugees of means. Most private schools are modeled after “batch system” public schools have been using for over 150 years, an assembly line churning out batches of kids based on their born-on dates. They are familiar clones of the failing public model with better scholastic outcomes, often outspending the public sector because:
• Their customers are desperate or determined parents who will come up with the money.
• They have no efficient competition, and space is limited. Simple supply and demand.
• They sell the “high school tradition” as much as they sell the foundations of scholastic and expressive possibilities; in so doing, they offer unnecessary familiarity.
Too much is made of the socializing benefit of behemoth modern middle and high schools. Twenty years after graduation, who really is harmed by having not attended Acme High Class of 2014? Are those who were in small efficient one-room academies, charter schools, or home-schooled more likely to be scarred for life or ahead of the game? Studies indicate the latter, ahead of the game.
To those of you who have dug deep into your own pocket to give your kids the best education; to those who do the same–but only when the kids are college age, imagine the opportunities that would arise were the wasted billions emancipated from the bureaucracy and made available to parents who never dreamed they would be able to shop for their kids’ best interests.
People mistakenly believe that public education must take place in a government building full of government employees. But there was a time when it was equally unthinkable that the armed forces would train and wage war with anything but weapons and ammo made in a government armory by government gunsmiths. People mistakenly believe that public education in its current wasteful form is the only alternative to greedy corporations plotting and plundering the sacred education budget for profit. These mistaken beliefs show an incredible lack of imagination.
Envision a system where parents with vouchers join forces with proven inspirational educators to form a real “PTA,” and cut out the wasteful middle men and power brokers in the bureaucracy.
California spends $11,495 in public funding per pupil for each nine-month school year (2016). The annual wailing always talks about cuts and shortfalls, but never about actual dollar amounts. Let’s do some math.
Thirty 10-year-olds need a 5th grade education for the next nine months, and represent $344,850 in public funding to accomplish this. Imagine their parents with full vouchers in their children’s individual education accounts. After hiring an excellent teacher for $125,000 annual pay + $35,000 in annual benefits, this education cooperative would have $184,850 remaining to rent a classroom space ($10,000/year?), buy supplies, and otherwise support the effort. Several such parent-teacher co-ops could efficiently pool and share the cost of additional visiting teachers of foreign language, music, drama, economics, yoga, nutrition, personal finance, art, drivers safety, etc. to expand the breadth of learning and personal exploration.
Classes would no longer need to be modeled after the 19th century batch system. Students of various ages could mentor and be mentored by each other in class together, as is successfully done now only in “alternative” schools. Subtly, they would thereby learn leadership, mutual respect, mentoring and co-inspiration. School shootings would become as rare as the California Condor.
The co-ops could be modeled after–and regulated by states like–homeowners associations (HOA’s). Just like HOA’s, the educational co-ops could hire management companies through a competitive bid process for the required minimum bookkeeping, cost accounting and state reporting. This new crop of professional managers would compete in a private sector marketplace of certified managers bidding for accounts.
Only state certified providers could receive funds from the student’s Individual Education Security Account. Annual federal and state-provided funds not spent in a school year could accumulate and roll over within the students’ lifelong Individual Education Security Account. At the end of the K-12 journey, leftover funds could be available for tuition to state universities, colleges, or accredited vocational schools and apprenticeships.
By activating parental market force incentives, the usual, maddening, and wasteful “use it or lose it” system of public spending would die a well-deserved death. Every dollar saved by wise parental shopping would bring every parent’s child closer to prepaid college or trade school.
Such a system would liberate and empower the legions of world class would-be (and previously-were) teachers who may have given up on a system offering low pay and bureaucratic oppression that favors seniority over merit and ingenuity. The state’s role would be reduced to certification, proposing core curriculum, and if deemed necessary, testing or otherwise spot checking results. Efficient, modern one-room academies have the potential to recapture those bygone days when a high school diploma equaled the bachelor’s degree of today. These micro-laboratories of educational approaches would render all the educational benefits of homeschooling or private academies, but with current levels of public funding.
The existing buildings and campuses currently housing schools could either be sold by the districts, or leased to management companies who would maintain them and rent classroom space to PTA co-ops, thus returning revenues to the districts that owned them, so as to satisfy the bond holders who built them. Otherwise, with the billions that such a system would liberate, developers would quickly join forces with architects to design and build lease space and efficient facilities that catered to the new, cost-conscious co-ops, all at no extra cost to the taxpayers, and without issuing general obligation bonds. But in reality, any existing commercial lease space with minor tenant improvements would do.
Embittered bureaucrats, gatekeepers and social engineers would need to reflect on their careers, and perhaps revisit the joys of teaching, since that would now be where the money and prestige is. Teaching would deservedly become an attractive and lucrative career for charismatic and inspirational teaching stars. These stars would find each other and form small or large teams to offer a variety of curricula. Most importantly, these stars would inspire a new generation of educators with a reinvigorated love of teaching, where anything is possible.
For too long, a voucher system has been characterized as a transfer of public monies to greedy corporations who will steal tax money and operate on the cheap. The solution is to change the model, not just redirect the coveted funding stream. Turning parents into education customers with market power changes the argument. It is easy for teachers unions or corporate lobbyists to bribe or threaten 25 influential legislators. It is harder for either of these greedy interest groups to do the same to 25 million parents with spending power and a love of their children.
And yes, I am dreaming. I know. Anyone who whispers the word “vouchers” in the legislature is smeared and eviscerated as wanting to destroy schools by funding corporate greed. Same old bogeymen conjured up by the same old vested interests. But, if it causes just one person in power to imagine possibilities beyond doubling down on a clearly outdated model merely to avoid the turmoil of change, then it is worth the evisceration by the powerful interests of the status quo.
Expensive, entrenched bureaucracies fear citizens with choices. The future of our children, however, could be liberated by them.
It may be an impossible dream, but it’s a worthwhile dream.