Rethinking American Education

Public K-12 education in this country suffers from a lack of effective competition that prevents market forces from working the way they should. What would happen if there was school choice in America today? Parents who are dissatisfied with the educational product their public schools provide could vote with their feet and take their tax dollars and their children to schools that offer better value. Opposition to school choice is highly regressive because the wealthiest families have the ability to pay twice for their children’s education, first through taxes and second through private school tuition. This is not an option for lower-income households.   

The benefits of school choice are substantial. First, the public schools in most of the country would have to reopen to compete with the private schools that never closed or did so only briefly. Second, the salaries of exceptional teachers would rise, while those of underperforming teachers would fall and the least proficient among those would be driven from teaching altogether. Most importantly, the quality of instruction would increase while expenditures decrease as a direct result of competition between schools. The teachers’ unions oppose school choice precisely because it would force public schools across the country to actually compete on the merits or perish the way any underperforming enterprise should.  

Public K-12 education suffers as a result of high barriers to entry that prevent competition from instilling the requisite discipline in public education. The aforementioned absence of school choice is one problem and an unduly cumbersome teacher certification/licensing process is another. Lower these barriers to entry and competition will flourish. Our children will receive a higher-quality education at lower prices which will improve productivity and America’s competitiveness. Unfortunately, the institutional constraints that sustain these barriers to entry and impede effective competition are firmly entrenched with support at the highest levels of government. The teachers’ unions are a strong Democrat political lobby.  

Where to Begin?

A significant number of dedicated and highly intelligent college students major in education. Nonetheless, on average, education majors do not rank in the highest percentiles on college aptitude tests. This is consistent with my university teaching experience wherein education majors were overrepresented in the lower half of the grade distribution. If we want to improve educational outputs, we need to improve educational inputs and that begins with higher teacher proficiency.

The problem with the teachers’ unions is primarily twofold. First, they prop up the salaries of average and below-average teachers. Exceptional teachers are paid too little, while poor teachers are paid too much. Second, tenure makes it all but impossible to terminate underperforming teachers who, in many cases, are recycled from one school to the next before their ineptitude poses an insurmountable problem for administrators. Exceptional teachers do not require tenure. A competitive market for teachers will reward them with job security through long-term contracts at salary premia that duly reflect their superior performance. It is the average and below-average teachers that are the true beneficiaries of tenure, because they enjoy the protection of job security that a competitive market would never provide.

In its present form, teacher certification/licensing is a counterproductive barrier to entry that should be lowered for the well-being of our children. It serves largely to artificially inflate teacher salaries by preventing the entry of those that may be able to perform at a more proficient level. A four-year degree in education is not required to be an effective teacher. This is evident from the fact that university professors have little or no formal training in teaching and yet many exhibit considerable prowess in the classroom. Unfortunately, the market is not self-correcting because the teachers’ unions and school administrators are shielded from the discipline of the competitive process. No matter how poor the instruction, or indifferent the teacher, the tax dollars continue to flow to support their salaries and pensions.  

Dramatically reforming the education major and lowering the barriers to entry in the form of teacher certification/licensing would clear the way for those in a multitude of different fields, including engineering, mathematics, medicine, law, and business to enter the ranks of K-12 teaching. Many of these professionals are willing to trade off higher remuneration for more personal satisfaction because they desire a career change or simply want to give back to society. Rudimentary training in teaching methods will be necessary to ensure the requisite teaching competence, but this does not require four years of training. It never did.

Creative Destruction  

Creative destruction is the idea that dynamic forces work incessantly to destroy existing business models and institutions over time and replace them with superior alternatives. It is necessary to fuel the process of creative destruction to reinvigorate the nation’s public schools.  

The scientific evidence is mounting that schools are safer than homes in terms of the spread of the virus and yet the teachers’ unions refuse to allow their members to return to the classroom. Where is the concern for students from low-income households that are denied instruction altogether because they lack access to computers and broadband? I am not suggesting that teachers lives should be valued less than those of their students, but they should certainly not be valued more. Drug abuse and domestic abuse have increased along with student depression during the pandemic while teenage suicides have surged.

To address the problem du jour, teachers that are willing to assume the minimal risk of COVID transmission should be allowed to return to the classroom and be paid a premium for doing so as a form of combat pay. Teachers unwilling to assume that risk should be tasked with providing virtual instruction or accept an administrative position at reduced compensation.   

The pandemic has highlighted a serious problem with K-12 education that we ignore at our own peril. The public K-12 educational system has no real incentive to be responsive to the communities it serves. This explains why private schools are open and public schools are closed. The former must meet a payroll by offering a high-quality, competitive product, while the latter meets its ever-increasing payrolls by raising taxes on customers held captive by the absence of school choice.      

The educational system in this country is broken, perhaps irreparably. The system can be reclaimed only by breaking down barriers to entry: eliminate tenure, reduce the complexity of teacher certification/licensing and promote school choice. It is only then that we can unleash the power of competition and creative destruction to improve our nation’s schools.  

Dr. Weisman is Professor of Economics Emeritus at Kansas State University and a former Director of Strategic Marketing at SBC (now AT&T). He has published more than 140 articles, books, and book chapters, principally in the fields of economic regulation, antitrust and public policy. He is the author of An Essay on the Art and Science of Teaching and How to Integrate Economic Analysis into Classroom Discussions of Diversity? His research has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

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