Government Schools: Antiques Preserved in Political Amber

No one will fix the schools; everyone who can depends on their staying as they are. A genuine fix would destroy the public education empire exactly as the industrial revolution destroyed agrarian society. That looming threat cements the status quo in place at any cost. That cost, paid by students, parents, voters and the country, is high: dropouts, incompetence and political indoctrination instead of education at about twice the cost per pupil needed in other places that do better.

Politicians defer to the teachers' unions; it's national news when one doesn't. The unions protect the teachers from both competition and hard work and all dig in their heels to prevent change to the system; it therefore plugs on unaltered. Anyone paying attention knows that though many changes are discussed, only one change actually occurs: increased spending. The mass production of brainwashed incompetence chugs on unimpeded.

A president of the Chamber of Commerce described the public schools with perfect justice as 1930's style industrial plants. Like early auto production, they invest heavily to collect labor and work from all over into one place. Teachers still teach by explaining things to every student face to face. That's like assembling Model T's with wrenches.  Automakers moved on to reduce labor with automation and to reduce inventory with efficient logistics. They abandoned Henry Ford's "You can have any color you want as long as it's black" simplified production for computer-controlled multiple choices while schools continued unchanged as a static inventory of all children between five and eighteen years old, an enormous paralysis of human resources. The teachers' are the last of the mass industrial unions; the planets' most massive featherbed.

Parents are often unhappy with schools but they somehow never become so unhappy that groups of them force real change, a pattern resting to some extent on the devil's bargain between the two. Since the end of one-earner families in the 1970's, the schools have provided the baby-sitting that has allowed both parents to be employed, thus keeping their standard of living. The public schools are an offer most parents can't refuse. A few struggle with a stay-at-home parent and with home schooling but those aren't realistic alternatives for most.

Absent the political trades, public education could follow industry in a hugely productive reorganization. Consider these questions:

  • 1. Do teachers really have to face kids in the same room?
  • 2. Does it make any kind of sense to limit class sizes per teacher today?
  • 3. What is the point of forcing all students to travel to the same place at the same time?
  • 4. Why must huge sums be spent regularly for mountains of textbooks?
  • 5. Is government-supplied babysitting the sensible way to occupy kids until they're eighteen?
  • 6. And here's a killer: Why should everybody have to learn the same stuff?
Those six questions are a death threat to the currently archaic and rotting public schools. The obvious answers will eliminate the teachers' unions, obsolete most of the teachers, empty most of the buildings and terminate textbook publishing. They will also vastly improve education, improve the lives and the value of kids and save more money than most can imagine; almost everything now spent on schools is an unnecessary load on government budgets.

First: It isn't necessary to mix baby-sitting with teaching. Warehousing kids can be done by private enterprise at far less cost and more conveniently than by government. Compare the cost of a baby-sitter with the cost of a teacher. Where there's a parent at home, education can occur there. Where both parents work, the market can supply places for their kids as it does now; the cost will be held down by competition and affordable when taxes now supporting schools are no longer needed. The education can be geared individually to each child and supplied via computers and the internet at high quality with low cost. Another gain would be returning parents to the education team from which they've been excluded; their supervision will be needed.         

 For younger kids, the preschool model is suggestive. The older kids freed from high schools are a labor pool that can be drawn upon to help education as well as other activities, returning them to a productivity lost to them since the farms industrialized. It won't cost nearly as much as using teachers for the work. The work they do will contribute much to their ongoing education as well as initiating their self-sufficiency

Education, once separated from the warehousing, can be delivered at nearly the same cost to one person or thousands of people at any time of day or night. The lessons can be designed by the very best talents and available at low prices. If desired, testing services can also be provided as they are today for government licensing or the makers of the lessons can provide their own in addition to the lessons. Video recording, computer delivery and internet meetings and publications can be provided and supervised for younger kids at the baby-sitting facilities or at home when that's practical. Older kids can work part time and study part time with a minimum of bureaucratic supervision and more parental involvement in the process. And with market choice, identical educations are no longer necessary. Henry Ford's black Model T can finally be put to rest while kids' hours in front of a computer are put to use.

For those worried about the NFL, NBA and NHL losing their publicly subsidized base, athletics -- and other social activities -- can be delivered along the lines of Pop Warner and Little League by market and volunteer forces so long as demand exists. Home schoolers have already set that pattern in place.

The politicians will lose their union allies. Most of the 2 million or so teachers and others will have to find other work. Those 125,000 schools will become available for other uses. The text publishers will mostly vanish. All those and all their dependents are already fighting to prevent any of this, so far, successfully; political amber is a powerful preservative. But what it preserves is dead and the preserved dead are fossils. What's the ultimate price of fossilizing children?