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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Consumer Driven Public Education

The current state of public education in the United States is not only an embarrassment, it is a national calamity.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks a lowly 18th out of the 36 nations whose education systems were evaluated.  Who is at the top of the rankings?  The answer is South Korea, where 93% of all high school students graduate on time.  This compares with the US where only 75% of the students receive high school diplomas.  But, actually the situation is much, much worse than that.  The fact is that many of those in the US who graduate from high school are functionally illiterate.  They have just been passed through the system.

The US is not in this sorry state of affairs because we do not have great teachers, or because we are not spending enough on education.  South Korea spends $3,759 (in US dollars) per student annually on education.  In contrast, the United States spends $7,743 per pupil.  It's not because parents, and the public in general, do not care about the education of American children.  The problem is the system.

Today the US ranks 4th behind Japan, China and Germany in automobile manufacturing.  The United States also ranks 15th in broadband access.  The United States will, of course, continue to fall further behind in manufacturing, broadband access, technological development and every other economic indicator if our public schools continue to deteriorate.

To better understand the situation, let's recall what happened in divided Germany.  East Germany was the showcase of socialism.  The East Germans lived better, produced better, than any other group of people living in the socialist paradise of the Soviet Union.  Since 1936 East Germans had lived under socialism, first under Hitler and then under the Communists.  Because they were hard working by nature, East German socialism is probably an example of socialism at its best.

Socialism is a weird invention built upon weird ideas.  Nowhere in a socialist system is there any mechanism to regulate or set a logical wage level or price for the goods and services produced.  And, of course, there is no reward or incentive to create or produce quality goods and services.  The only virtue of socialism (if you can call it that) is that, with the exception of the rulers, everyone lives in common misery.

All socialist systems are designed by ideologues who feel that they are not only smarter and wiser than the lesser members of their society, but also more ethically advanced.  Based on this false premise, they endeavor to create a "fair" society where everyone shares equally in the wealth of the society.  Of course, wealth is never expanded (as it is under capitalism), and there are no further advances in science or technology or manufacturing.  Worse yet, the those forced to live under socialism live a meaningless life of drudgery.  There is simply no hope of improving your family's economic standing under socialism unless you become one of the apparatchiks.

Fortunately, Germany gives us an opportunity to compare the results of socialism side-by-side with capitalism.  East Germany after World War II was the showcase of socialism and West Germany, in that same period, was the showcase of economic freedom, i.e. capitalism.  Both began at the same starting point—utter devastation from the war.  Neither one had an economic advantage over the other.

What happened?  West Germany became an economic powerhouse in a very short order.  Adapting a free market approach, Germany soon became the producer of some of the greatest automobiles in the world—Mercedes Benz, Audi, Porsche, BMW and Volkswagen.  From the top of the line to the bottom of the line these automobiles set the standard for the world in terms of quality, innovation, reliability, and performance.

On the other side of the border, in the socialist showcase of East Germany, progress was very slow, if at all.  In fact, after the wall fell nearly 50 years after the close of World War II, West Germans were shocked to find that nothing had changed in East German factories since the reign of Hitler in the 1930s.  But they should not have been surprised.  Socialism grinds economic production and innovation to a halt.  Not only were the factories operating with circa 1930 machinery, nothing had been done to update and maintain the infrastructure.  The telephone system was the same, the plumbing was the same, the electrical service was the same, the roads were the same, the railroads were the same, and the sewer system was the same.  And when I say the same, I'm referring to the fact that nothing had been done to update or even maintain this infrastructure.  The infrastructure had crumbled into total disrepair.  All of it had to be replaced at great cost by West Germany, after the wall came down.

It is no wonder that the only automobile produced in this socialist paradise was the Trabant.  To say that the East German Trabant was a poor car would be to give it far too much credit.  The Trabant was junk.  Quality was non-existent, it performed poorly, the two-stroke engine was inefficient and it was totally unreliable.  And, as bad as they were, they were almost impossible to obtain.

When you compare the Trabant to the automobiles of West Germany, you are comparing socialism in its purest form to capitalism.  Whereas the automobiles of West Germany were world leaders and every family had at least one, the Trabant wasn't as reliable as the Model A Ford and it certainly wasn't designed or built with as much quality.  Moreover, only a very few East Germans ever had enough money to purchase one.

That's socialism—poor quality, shortages, and general economic misery.  It stands in stark contrast to an economic system where freedom is the foundation.  Socialism never works, no matter how many times it is tried, no matter who designs it, no matter who operates it, and no matter what product or service it operates.  It is a total and complete failure.  Yet, otherwise smart people still cling to the utopian idea of socialism as something to be desired.

In a similar fashion, the systemic failure of American education has been brought about by government intervention at the highest levels.  The homogenization of education combined with a complete and total lack of competition will continue the decline in quality of education in the United States.  Again, it's not a matter of reform, or teachers or money, it's a function of a flawed system that will never achieve any level of excellence.  In short, American education is plagued—from grade school, through high school, and into college—with inevitable mediocrity.

But when you get down in the weeds and start talking about the individual failures, you are missing the main point.  American education is systematically designed to fail.  There is only one solution and that is consumer driven education.  You can't let the inmates run the institution and expect to produce excellence or sanity.  Excellence and quality always begin and end with a consumer driven free market solution.  Unless and until consumers, i.e. parents, drive education, it will continue to wallow in an intellectual wasteland surrounded by a moral abyss. 

If we don't trust socialists to design and build our cars or brew our beer, why in the world should we rely on a socialist system to educate our children?  Socialism ruins everything it touches, from health care to religion.  Have you ever wondered why Europe, for centuries the home of Christianity in the world, is today a nearly Christian free zone?  Authors of the book, God is Back, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, contrast European Christianity with American Christianity.  They come to the conclusion that in Europe it is government support (i.e. control) of the various state religions that has neutered them.  When someone is born in Germany he or she is automatically a Lutheran, or in England that person would be an Anglican, or in Italy or Spain, he or she would be a Catholic.  In other words, it is something you become by birth, not something you actually buy into or make a personal commitment to.  How can there be any ownership of the mission of the church when it gets its support from the government?  In stark contrast, Micklethwait and Wooldridge mark the relative robustness of Christianity in the United States as being a product of free churches working hard to bring in converts and to undertake programs benefitting those inside and outside the church.  He sees their competitiveness with each other as a benefit to all participants.  Perhaps this explains why only 2% of those in Europe regularly attend church, while some 40% of Americans identify themselves as regular church goers.  In effect, religion in Europe has gone socialist and the result is the near death of Christianity.

Keeping that lesson in mind, if we want to create intellectually strong schools, we must introduce the competitive forces of the marketplace.  This is the central failing of our public schools at every level.  The funds spent directly on education by the federal government and the various state governments (collected through taxes) must be put into the hands of parents to spend for their children when and where they choose. 

After all, children belong to their parents, not to the government or to society in general.  Of course, that's not what many progressive/liberals believe.  MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry recently stated, "We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to their communities."  But government is not God and neither is Melissa Harris-Perry.  In fact, God made it clear in the Bible that children are a gift from God to their parents and children are to obey their parents.

So, what will happen if we take a consumer driven approach to education in America?  Competition is a wonderful thing.  It brings out the best in all participants.  All the children will not leave our public schools if we put parents in charge of deciding what school to send their children to and thereby decide what their children will be taught.  In fact, public schools, like their competition in the private sector, will have to be responsive to the wants and desires of parents.  Public schools will compete and become better and better, focusing on education, not social engineering.  And they will become trimmer, and more efficient and responsive to the needs of parents and their children.  Socialist monopolies are always bloated, inefficient, and mediocre by definition.  But, through competition, public schools and their private school competitors will become the best in the world at the primary, secondary, and collegiate level.

Such schools will become better run, and the teachers will become happier and more engaged, knowing that they have the freedom to do their very best.  All parties will win, especially the students whose parents can choose the right school to meet their particular needs.  It won't be a panacea, but free market schools driven by parents will return American education to the top of the heap.  Sure, some parents will choose the wrong schools for their children and their children will suffer.  The parents have the right to make the wrong choices for their children in a free society.  However, the bottom line is that by and large, many, many more students will advance and succeed under a free market, competitive educational system than they do today.  The big winners will be the poor, especially minorities, who will be able to escape the failing government schools to get good educations for their children.

If you want to get a glimpse into the power of schools that are parent driven, visit the website of St. Marcus School at  This school became possible because Milwaukee public schools were ranked 47th in the nation and because a liberal African-American state legislator championed choice in education.  Democrat Polly Williams put the welfare of the children ahead of the teacher's unions and, under her leadership, Wisconsin passed school choice for the children whose parents are in poverty.  Once her bill became law, the powers of competition were unleashed.  Located in one of the poorest areas of Milwaukee, today St. Marcus School has nearly 600 students and an incredible track record of success.  More than 97% of all the students at St. Marcus go on to get their high school diploma, and a large number of those graduates have gone on to get their college degrees.  Before St. Marcus, the graduation rate from high school was not only miserable, but of those who did graduate from high school, their academic achievements were limited.

St. Marcus School has broken the cycle of poverty in their community.  By promoting hard work, discipline, and providing quality education, the students of St. Marcus have a very bright future.  Academically, St. Marcus is modeled after KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools that are found across the nation (  Thanks to many generous benefactors, including Bill and Melinda Gates, there are now nearly 100 KIPP schools across the nation breaking the cycle of poverty.  But, frankly, it is just a drop in the ocean.  Choice in education needs to be extended to all parents to the benefit of every school child in America and every teacher in America.  Everyone wins when competition exists.

Yes, monopolists will always complain and resist competition whether businesses or labor unions, but it is always to the detriment of the consumer.  As a liberal might put it, monopolies are not fair and in the case of education, they hurt the students the most.

School choice is a powerful and proven free market solution to the decline of public education.  Its triumph cannot come to soon.

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