June 20, 2007
How to Accomplish Education ReformBy Christopher Chantrill
Everyone is talking about education reform when they're not talking about immigration. Jonah Goldberg wonders why we bother to have public education, given how screwed up it is.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) wants to fix the "fatal flaws in our educational system" with a Children's Hope Act to encourage state scholarship tax credits.
David Gelernter proposes that we simply abolish public schools and give the money to parents.
But conservatives believe in gradual reform. We do not want to abolish anything, not all at once. So let us propose something mild and inoffensive.
Reform One: Repeal compulsory attendance laws now. How mild and inoffensive is that? Oh, I see. You don't trust other people to educate their children properly.
But you are wrong, you know. There has never been a problem getting parents to send their children to school. In the 1830s in Britain, James Mill (father of John Stuart) found that poor parents would eat potatoes in order to find the sixpence to send their children to the local village school. In How the Other Half Lives in 1880 Jacob Riis found that the only immigrant children in New York that didn't go to school were needed at work to put food on the table. Today in Hyderabad's inner city slum, according to James Tooley, one quarter of the schools are unsubsidized black-market private schools for the poor that charge tuition and outperform the government schools. Writes Clive Crook in The Atlantic:
But if we end compulsory attendance laws, what about kids that aren't in school? What are they to do? Good question, Senator. A gold star for you, sir.
Reform Two: Anyone who can pass a test in basic literacy and numeracy should be allowed to work. But what about child labor? Yes, what about it, and how bad was it anyway? It is hard to tell. The facts of child labor, you could argue, were polluted by labor unions with an interest in excluding children from the labor force and landowners with an interest in keeping their tenants at home working the land with their unpaid children.
Fortunately we can appeal to witnesses, people alive today who actually worked for wages as children. There's the Mexican immigrant who sold bubble gum on the street as a kid of five. From age seven he worked and went to school both. In The Case Against Adolescence Robert Epstein Jr. asked Pedro, now a cook in San Diego, about his child labor. Pedro talked "about his past with fondness and pride.
These two simple reforms may seem radical to some, but surely there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Let us take a look at some of the immediate effects of these reforms, for nothing much will change, not at first. Teachers will still have their jobs and their pensions.
Grade inflation will continue on its benign course. Children will be promoted from grade to grade even though they haven't learned anything.
But think of the benefits. Suppose we abolished compulsory school attendance; what would happen? Not much, but it would make it easier to expel problem children from school. Is there a principal in the nation who wouldn't sleep better at night knowing that she could expel the kids that didn't want to learn?
Supposed we abolished child labor laws; what would happen? Not much, but the problem kids expelled from school could get jobs if they wanted to. And parents could tell their uncontrollable kids to get out and get a job-and mean it.
Imagine our problem kid out in the labor force. He might discover that the only jobs available for high-school dropouts paid "chump change," and he might decide to go back to school and get serious.
This is also a form of education. It is called learning from experience.
Imagine a world where you weren't forced to send your kid to school.
You could say, on the day that they were scheduling sex education for first-graders, or playing a DVD of Inconvenient Truth for the fourth time that year, that little Emily would be attending a class at the local homeschooling resource center instead. Imagine that. Imagine parents cherry picking the offerings at their local public school. Well, why not?
OK. Let's stop right there. If we do any more what-iffing some people might realize that these two modest legislative proposals would not be quite as inoffensive as they first thought. But we do not want to frighten the horses. Not yet.
Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his roadtothemiddleclass.com and usgovernmentspending.com. His Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.