Dream in Progress

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, kitties, little old ladies and (insert sympathetic constituencies here) will suffer. That may be true, but it’s not for the reasons often cited.

There is undeniable waste and redundancy in state spending. There is plenty of waste in education spending. The problem is that most of this waste is attached to some very nice people who believed that they had achieved lifetime security by landing a job with government. Then, when funding runs low, and deficits loom, we hear the same narrative. The narrative needs poster children. Give us more money or the children will suffer. Give us more money or the teachers will suffer. The universally beloved become human shields.

In times of deficits and the resulting cuts in education funding, there is always an outcry and a declaration of who will suffer. It’s always the beloved ones, of course. If they asked for higher taxes and fees to save the lucrative jobs of mid-level state bureaucrats in the department of education, it wouldn’t generate the same wailing demonstrations, protests and bake sales.

There is a demographic change underway, which will soon render moot the arguments over school funding and the distracting side debate about teachers unions. That change is the passing of the baby boom generation out of their working and spending years, into their retirement years of fiscal retrenchment. These baby-boomers were the engines of economic and tax base growth that many presumed would continue growing forever. Not so. Even with increased tax rates, much less tax revenue will likely be collected and available to the public sector, including the current public school model.

It’s pointless to debate whether public schools are overfunded or underfunded, because public schools are fiscally insatiable by design, and by the laws of human nature. If only we could shake the paradigm of big, high-overhead government building complexes staffed by entrenched government employees, maintained by entrenched government custodians and gardeners, micro-managed by a bureaucracy of entrenched government overseers from afar entertaining visions of their role as societal architects of the cultural fabric that is a child’s mind. Then, maybe we could efficiently provide a quality education to all students that is publicly provided for.

But perhaps not publicly provided.

Parents and the education establishment would be wise to take a lesson from the public housing assistance experience. Big government housing projects–filled with public housing beneficiaries, micromanaged by government employees, maintained by government custodians & superintendents and made only slightly safer by armed government security guards–were wisely eradicated and replaced by vouchers. These vouchers are redeemable with any landlord who has been strictly prequalified to participate in the housing assistance program (Section 8). By sacrificing the 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, local control, and more safety, security 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 EBT cards (food stamps). What if, instead of the current system of directly reloading funds to a person’s EBT card, this system was scrapped entirely?

In its place, imagine that the government constructed public cafeterias in every town nationwide. Bigger cities would need several, so that each beneficiary could be assigned to their neighborhood cafeteria. Everyday, beneficiaries would travel to the cafeteria to receive prepared meals that would meet the government’s accepted nutrition standards. The meals would be cooked by credentialed cooks, and the facility serviced by government servers, bussers and dishwashers. Every community would elect a Board of Nutrition with funding requirements of its own. Each state would establish bureaucracies to administer the menu decisions, acquisition and delivery of raw groceries, and oversight of food preparation and distribution. Breakage, wear and tear would simply be priced in as a necessary cost of government nutritional support. The cafeteria building would employ 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 would need to be razed and replaced, and a whole new upgraded facility would need to be constructed. Taxpayers would then be asked to vote for nutrition bonds…for the children!

You get the point. Is there anyone reading this proposal who would argue that this new system would be less costly or less wasteful than simply reloading the beneficiaries’ EBT cards every month and empowering them to shop for themselves?

Granted, current EBT card holders make their own nutritional choices when they go to the grocery store to purchase their own food. Sometimes, less than the best nutritional choices are made. Yet on balance, the current EBT system is efficient, and far less costly than the proposed change above. Most importantly, the EBT 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.

And yet, when these beneficiaries go to Raley’s, Safeway or Walmart to purchase groceries for their family, the store makes a profit on every item purchased. Does that make the EBT 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 union, when they spend tens of millions of dollars in radio ads denouncing billionaires who seek to plunder (their) public education money?

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 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, churning out batches of kids based on their born-on dates like a human assembly line. They try to be comfortable and familiar clones of the failing public model with better scholastic outcomes, and they can outspend 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 homeschooled 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.

Imagine that.

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. Here’s just one of many possibilities:

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 $9,595 in public funding per pupil for each nine-month school year (2014). 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 $287,850 in public funding to accomplish this. Imagine their parents with full vouchers in their children’s individual accounts. After hiring an excellent teacher for $125,000 annual pay + $25,000 in annual benefits, this education cooperative would have $137,850 remaining to rent a classroom space ($10,000/year?), buy supplies and otherwise support the effort. Several such co-ops could efficiently pool and share the cost of additional visiting teachers of foreign language, music, drama, economics, yoga, nutrition, personal finance, art, 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, mentoring and co-inspiration.

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 or 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, establishing core curriculum and, if deemed necessary, testing or otherwise spot checking results. Efficient, modern one-room academies has 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 dollars.

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 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 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 religion and corporate greed. Same old bogey men 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.