The first part of James Taranto’s “Common Mistakes” article (Aug. 29 Wall Street Journal) is worth reading for at least two important reasons. In the first part of the article he addresses a widespread assertion that citizens have a duty to support public institutions like traditional public schools even if it would mean compromising the academic progress of their own children. And second, by making the common mistake of seeing schooling for children as a public good, rather than the “merit good” that it really is, he highlights the importance of not making that mistake.
Taranto and I disagree with the key assumption underlying the “duty to sacrifice,” even your children, if necessary to support institutions accountable to all of the people through the political process. The key assumption is that the political process that produced the “Nation at Risk” system we have now would eventually produce a much better system if, and only if, everyone is stuck there; that the voices of the people opting out now are the key to system improvement. Here I’ll ask a version of a Milton Friedman question that needs to defeat hope triumphing over experience and reason more often. What is it about a stronger public school monopoly (more extensive than the current public finance monopoly) that will make the political process produce different/better academic outcomes? What will make the key decision makers behave differently? What will make them recognize and confront the roots of the problem?
It is quite common for analysts to assert that more or different politics is the key to major improvement in the system’s aggregate performance, and that it can occur without any major changes in the distribution of school system political or economic power. So far they’ve been disappointed. In terms of supposedly different politics, inequities plus the corruption and low performance scandals of the 20th century tarnished control by local politicians. Increased state government involvement in K-12 central planning yielded mixed state-local control that failed to deliver improved performance despite much increased per pupil spending. The unsatisfactory state-local response to the wake-up call of the first (1983) “Nation at Risk” bipartisan national commission’s declaration of a rising tide of mediocrity (mostly increased spending and greater demands) — that we had done to ourselves what would have been seen as an act of war had a foreign power been responsible for the dumbing down of our citizens — yielded an increased role for national politics in the form of the 1994 Goals 2000 Act and the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. Adding national politics to the state and local politics has so far failed to yield significant academic performance gains, and thus has yielded no significant improvement in the most trusted measures of school system performance; just more spending for terrible results.
The common denominator of failure has been more politics. Though with failure of federal government politics to yield improved school system performance we’ve run out of higher levels of government from which to seek solutions, desperation, creativity, and blind faith in the existence of politically-constructed solutions continues to yield new proposals for ways that central planning can be made to perform acceptably. In my next blog post I will look at the latest attempt to wring improvement from political accountability; “parent trigger” legislation that takes politics full circle to below the traditional school district or city definition of local to school level. A majority of parents or teachers, or combined, can petition to demand school escape or school reform, including reconstitution of personnel or conversion to charter. Only the latter trigger option would perhaps — depending upon a state’s charter law provisions — address some roots of our school systems’ low performance problems.
Taranto’s discussion of “Common Mistakes” makes one; a biggy. A widespread, nearly knee-jerk objection to increased market accountability in the production of schooling options is that schooling for children is a public good, and markets do not produce public goods efficiently, or at all. Since that “public good” claim is a widespread source of dismissal of market-choice-oriented policy proposals, it is important that we recognize that schooling is not a public good, which by the way, is not a critique or value judgment. Public goods must, generally speaking, be publically financed because access cannot be denied to non-payers, which is something constantly proven false by private schools and colleges. We can exclude non-payers, though universal zero tuition at the K-12 level is widely seen as wise policy. But recall I argue against “free” only. Primary and secondary is a merit good, which means a private good that yields benefits beyond the people to whom it is delivered. So, subsidies to increase consumption might satisfy standard economic efficiency conditions. The merit good vs. public good distinction is important because merit goods typically should be produced privately, and have some private financing to allow for the powerful, essential price signals I have argued for as part of the only credible alternative to a central planning process, whose “pricelessness” is primarily responsible for its awful track record in every state, and worldwide.
By the way, if you think I’m cynical about the potential to directly, successfully address (central plan) complex, controversial issues through any political process, Google “legislation, sausage factory” and see how cynical state and federal legislators are about the lawmaking process; not at all like the kumbaya process presented in high school social studies courses. The “sausage factory” metaphor arose from an assertion, that stuck, that laws and sausage have in common that you would be shocked by how they are made; shocked by the outcome of mostly noble public officials pursuing and using political power.