Some fresh outrage from P.J. O'Rourke

Enough, however, of outrageous statistics. Let’s generate some pure outrage. Here’s my proposal: Close all the public schools. Send the kids home. Fire the teachers. Sell the buildings. Raze the U.S. Department of Education, leaving not one brick standing upon another and plow the land where it stood with salt.
In the article on Education in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I found this quaint description of the subjects studied at a typical American high school: “Latin, Greek, French, German, algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry, physical geography, physiology, rhetoric, English literature, civics and history.” Or, as we call them nowadays, a smattering of Spanish, Fun With Numbers, Earth in the Balance, computer skills, Toni Morrison, safe sex, and multicultural studies.

I have a brief with this paragraph:
“Wouldn’t closing the public schools eliminate valuable programs targeted for disabled students?” Yes. As of 2007, there were 6,007,800 children and young people with disabilities in the United States. But, also as of 2007, the Department of Education’s budget was $66 billion. Those funds have been freed up. That’s about $11,000 per disabled child plus the $15,000 each will receive as his or her pro rata share of the nation’s education spending. A yearly benefit of $26,000 should provide some tutoring and therapy—or a pocket full of Ritalin.

But if you've been here before you'd know that. Why? Well, the private schools for autistic kids (esp. severe cases like my son) start at around $60,000 and then go up from there. $100,000 is not unusual if, that is, you can get into one. Private schools are under no obligation to take anybody and they like to keep their ratio around 3:1. The higher up the cost ladder you go, you get to 1:1 and even 1:2. I suppose I'd be able to afford that if my other two were cut checks for $15,000 each. If I deduct what the local Catholic school costs, I'd still have to kick in out of pocket but I could probably find something. I'm not sure what but it would not be zero.

I do, however, agree with the overall thrust of the article. Public education is not doing it's job and has not done so for a long long time. That is not to say that I didn't get a good education in the public schools I attended. Indeed, they were very good. However, that is not the norm. O'Rourke ignores the cynical reality that compulsory public education functions as state run babysitting so parents can go to work and keeps kids out of trouble (as much as possible) and at least, makes policing cheaper. Few things are more destructive than teenage boys with too much idle time on their hands.

What would happen if we seriously pulled the plug on public education? (Granted this will never happen but bear with me). Let's assume that only the federal component was eliminated. That would be the end of donor states and recipient states. States would be required to self-fund without any money coming from Washington. Nor would they have to worry about federal mandates for whatever strikes the DOE's fancy. We would probably see the reduction of standardized testing and the overhead would decrease for record keeping and so on. Some states would see serious upheaval as they overturned the teacher's unions stranglehold on education. Those states would have a very vibrant and robust education system that would probably look more like our college/university system. The state would have some schools and they'd be pretty good but usually quite large and the private ones would be the best of the lot and frequently smaller.

What if we eliminated even the state level? We'd probably see education businesses buying up those schools in a hurry and hiring the best people they could possibly find and they'd have their doors open pretty quickly. I'd wager quite a few of those teachers would apply for their same jobs back and would probably get them at least in the short term. Again, the unions would face massive upheaval and would be fighting on all fronts to keep their hold where they could. There would be far too many battles to fight and they'd have to focus on the largest (read: urban) areas to keep something going. The school administrators would likely be more like CFOs than educators. They'd have to budget and hire and fire. They'd be in charge of marketing and endowment building. Delaware, for example, would see a massive increase in applications to existing private schools which have things in place and would not require startups.

I admit to a bias here. I have always favored not the destruction of the public education system but rather, I want it to compete on a level field with private schools. I often ask opponents of vouchers and private schools, why our secondary education system works so well. How can it be that the (relatively) unfettered secondary education market makes for good public as well as private schools but that model would somehow fail if it did the same with primary school. Imagine if you had a check from the state for $10,000 per year. Don't you think you could find a good school for your child? I do. Hell, a great many parents would stay in their local district. We have an ersatz version of school choice here. I don't know the details but from what I understand there is some mobility between schools here but not from public to private. Only from public to public. That's not much but it is more than most states have.

Choice and competition always foster a better product. Always. Monopolies are bad. Always.


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