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Muddy, Shallow Thinking Versus Clarity in Education Reform


Monopolies are the best! If we are to gain maximum efficiency and create the greatest value for people, monopoly is the way to go. Competition creates administrative inefficiency since instead of one set of managers, there are as many as there are companies, and all of them cost money. Competitive companies make products that do the same basic things, but waste resources by making products with different features. Standardized products would save money. Were research and development under one roof, instead of many competitive ones, researchers could coordinate more closely, saving money and ultimately being even more innovative. Monopolies would therefore benefit everyone.

Everything in the first paragraph is, of course, balderdash. Monopolies, especially those created by government, stifle innovation, develop bloated management, produce too little at low quality, and charge too much. Why? Because they can. They’re monopolists. Without competition and with nearly guaranteed profits, they have little incentive to care what consumers really want or to produce efficiently. So they don’t.

Disappointingly, the mud-puddle thinking (shallow and murky) reflected in the first paragraph can be heard in nearly every debate over school choice from those who oppose it. Government schools, as President Trump calls public education, are monopolies. The consequence is exactly what would be expected. Primary and secondary education in the U.S. is expensive compared to the vast majority of other nations. For the money, we get relatively poor results. Management is bloated, with a non-teacher to match every teacher in public schools. Any innovation that occurs is always an excuse for schools to cost more money, and innovations usually yield worse results.

There is nothing ideological or anti-educational in pointing out that public schools give us everything you would expect from a monopoly. It is simply stating an obvious economic fact for which there is a mountain of evidence.

There is also nothing anti-teacher about stating the fact that public schools are monopolistic. In fact, public schools are also monopsonists (the only employers of teachers). Economists have shown that monopsonies hire too few and pay too little compared to competitive employers. Teachers’ good-will and work ethic are what make the public schools function as well as they do, counter to the incentives in the system. Imagine what teachers could do if they had more control over their own destiny and were allowed to truly be the education practitioner professionals so many of them imagined they were before being absorbed into the government school system. 

School choice advocates look at the monopoly/monopsony public school system and simply see the benefit of introducing at least a modicum of competition. How, they reason, could it hurt to move away from a monopoly/monopsonist system that hurts both customers (children and their parents) and the people who endeavor to produce within it (teachers)? Again, there’s nothing nefarious in this reasoning. It’s economic common sense.

Nonetheless, some disagree. Among these is Diane Ravitch, an education history professor and past bureaucrat in the George H.W. Bush administration’s education department. In a recent Time article, she paints a number of education reform efforts, including school choice, with nefarious intent. Several of her points about other school reform efforts are well-taken, but her own recommended reforms would do nothing about the monopoly/monopsony. She seems to think herself the nation’s principal. With her in charge, why, she’d hire experienced teachers, give children recess, and make sure there were enough counselors and nurses. What’s more, real reformers spend more and desegregate, unlike today’s “disruptors” who Ravitch clearly despises.

Well, Ravitch is right that G.W. Bush’s and Ted Kennedy’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” were hollow reforms. Though well-intentioned, they were ultimately doomed because top managements in the government school monopolies had every incentive to undermine the efforts, and none to make them work. As explained elsewhere, the education accountability movement started with people who just wanted to know some overall achievement test results – results the schools have collected for decades, but which they keep utterly secret. The education system responded with all kinds of excuses and we ended up with Rube Goldberg testing contraptions that didn’t work, partly because they were implemented by people who either didn’t care if they worked or sincerely hoped they wouldn’t. Of course, calls for more funding for testing were heeded. Funding rose, just like Ravitch wants (though she would redirect it).

She’s also right to criticize the Common Core. You have to wonder, though, how it is that the monopoly public education system, fully in existence now for a hundred years, cannot figure out what children ought to know and when they ought to know it. Every school district of any size has a curriculum director. These bureaucrats often get in the way of teachers’ best-laid plans for teaching the subject in which they’ve specialized, but curriculum directors cost money. More funding, just like Ravitch wants.

Ravitch buys into the idea that “we” need to ensure “access to nutrition, medical care, and decent housing” and “we” need to make sure kids are born healthy. I guess we’re all supposed to be everybody else’s parent, grandparent, and OB/Gyn. Of course, all that means is that nobody ever takes real responsibility for being anybody’s parent or grandparent. That’s what happens when you try to create collective responsibility for what is really very personal responsibility.

Ravitch is right that teachers should be able to act more independently, although it’s not clear if she thinks teachers should at least be told fairly specifically what they’re expected to teach. Nonetheless, teachers would have to take responsibility, something she seems intent on keeping parents from having to do.

What rankles most about Ravitch’s screed against “billionaires supporting charter schools and vouchers” is that despite all the evidence, she seems to think the government school monopoly/monopsony might actually care to do any of the things she advocates. The government school monopoly/monopsony is the very institution that has historically grown the non-teacher bureaucracy at teachers’ expense. It is the institution that has cut recess, that has had to be brow-beaten into teaching reading through phonics (Ravitch is rightly a proponent of phonics), that has largely ignored the needs of boys, that has implemented non-sensical “zero-tolerance” policies, and that prefers to propagandize social fads in favor of rigorous instruction.

The only way to even begin to break the government school monopoly/monopsony is through school choice. But in most states, school choice is only an afterthought. Until the majority of children currently captured in our public schools have meaningful access to schools of their choosing, competition will not live up to its potential. So instead of doing all she can to kill school choice, a reform still mostly in infancy, Ravitch should be about the business of turning school choice into something so common it is no longer considered a reform, or a disruption. School choice is a chance for students, parents and teachers to choose better. Who would deny them?

Byron Schlomach, 1889 Institute Director. He can be contacted at bschlomach@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.

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