One of the most reflexive responses of the left to any social problem is to blame under-funded education. What the left means by this, of course, is not really education but indoctrination, which is the primary purpose of public education and college education in America today. The vast transfer of wealth from parents and taxpayers to the public schools and universities is one of the most regressive sorts of social tariff in our society.
Public education from grades K through 12 gobbles up 38% of all state government spending. State and local spending on public education is more than $15,000 per pupil. Federal spending on public education was almost nonexistent a few decades ago, but now it is growing fast. America, in fact, spends more per capita on public education than almost any nation in the world. Are we getting much for that investment? Not according to test scores.
Higher education means both public universities and private universities. Taxpayers spend a lot of money to support public universities. Taxpayers, as parents footing the bill for tuition, pay a second part of the high cost of college. The cost per credit hour in the average university is about $300, or about $9,000 per college year. This expense has increased 1,000% over the last decade. Americans are "investing" an enormous amount of money in the education of our children. Is this wise policy? The conventional answer has been "yes," but in several different ways, that answer should be rethought:
(1) The cost to taxpayers and to parents seems to have no rational limit when the mantra "investing in our children" is recited. As a consequence, in many states -- California is a perfect example -- education is consuming almost everything in sight. It is not simply the first priority, but almost the only priority. Government expenditures for roads, parks, libraries, water and sanitation services, police and prisons, and fire protection serve the general welfare. Public schools and colleges, however, serve only a fraction of the population, yet all of the public is compelled to support education. When services for the general welfare suffer, should not services for special groups be scrutinized? This is even truer when not all children go to public schools, much less to college. Is it fair, to the broad-minded leftist, to take money from poor families so that richer families can send their children to college? Why should the taxes of waitresses be used to subsidize the education of middle-level corporate executives?
(2) Education is increasingly ideological indoctrination. That has long been true in college, but political correctness has now crept into high school, middle school, and even elementary school. The inculcation of beliefs alien to America and to its Judeo-Christian moral system diminishes the value to the rest of us of liberal arts graduates. Our viewpoint toward college education has become so wholly consumed by a false vision that otherwise sane and principled people like Sean Hannity raise money to go to the scholarship funds of children of warriors who fall in action. There is no doubt that helping these children is noble and good, but why help them by sending them...to a reeducation camp? With precious few exceptions likes Hillsdale and Grove City Colleges, left-wing indoctrination is the way of the contemporary campus. How about raising money so that these kids can start a small business, buy a home, or get private tutoring in some valuable field? We reflexively consider that a college education "broadens" us, even though the evidence shows that it constricts and chokes free thinking and serious questioning. We give a college education value simply because so many institutions of our society have been nudged, or ordered, to give it value.
(3) Formal public education, even in the optimum state, has passed its moment of social utility. Children do need to learn basic skills like reading and mathematics, but while learning is priceless and information is power and wealth, formal education is a broken-down model for encouraging the lifelong acquisition of knowledge and skills which are vital to a population which is growing older all the time but staying -- if active and useful -- healthier than ever before. What government ought to provide is an automat of options for all Americans to learn throughout their lives. People learn in radically different ways. Public schools promise only a very limited number of ways to learn, usually constructed around that anachronism, the classroom. Why not provide through the public and the private sector a rich stew of learning systems and allow everyone a government voucher to learn through one of these systems? Is there much doubt that people who choose the most interesting way for themselves to learn will learn more easily and more joyfully? These people might well acquire that priceless gift of a lifelong lust for learning. And how would we "know" if people are learning? Allow a competency test for everyone who seeks the equivalent of a high school diploma or a college degree at any level, and require that any such person pass this test. Make learning, however the individual achieves it, the goal, and make a standardized test the rough determinant of whether he who tries to learn has accomplished that goal.
What we need is an accountable, diverse, market-driven system available to children and to adults of all ages so that we are motivated to learn and to keep learning all our lives. What is the best hope for Social Security entitlement stability? Create a system in which those near retirement can learn to do a job that they love, which allows them to contribute rather than consume, and which keeps them active and healthy. The best hope for our kids is to allow them to fall in love with learning. If we rethink and truly reform education, many social problems will melt away, and the future of all Americans will be much brighter.