Our bloated school systems: End them, don’t mend them

My title above is taken from the cover of the latest Weekly Standard magazine which features an article by P.J. O’Rourke that “explains how to deal with our bloated school systems.” In the best article I’ve ever read on the subject of the public schools, O’Rourke writes:

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.

‘Wait a minute,’ the earnest liberal says, ‘we’ve got swell public schools here in Flourishing Heights. The kids take yoga. We just brought in a law school placement coordinator at the junior high. The gym has solar panels on the roof. Our Girls Ultimate Frisbee team is third in the state. The food in the cafeteria is locally grown. And the vending machines dispense carrots and kiwi juice.’

Close them anyway. I’ve got [$]11,749 reasons. Or, given [a recent] Cato report, call it [$]15,000. Abandon the schools. Gather the kids together in groups of 15.4. Sit them down at your house, or the Moose Lodge, or the VFW Hall or-gasp-a church. Multiply 15.4 by $15,000. That’s $231,000. Subtract a few grand for snacks and cleaning your carpet. What remains is a pay and benefit package of a quarter of a million dollars. Average 2008 public school classroom teacher salary: $51,391. For a quarter of a million dollars you could hire Aristotle. The kids wouldn’t have band practice, but they’d have Aristotle.

P.J. O’Rourke is a humorist, but he’s serious while being funny. It’s a long article — but well worth your time. Click here to read it.

Exactly twenty years ago Warren T. Brookes gave a speech at Hillsdale College in which he said that economic decline is linked to education. He referred to the “tragedy of American public education,” which is —

a kind of collectivist millstone around the neck of our nation which is now in the battle of its life for survival in a world where, as George Gilder notes, ‘Knowledge is not merely a source of power. It is supremely the source of power.’

Brookes said that “knowledge and understanding are now our most basic form of capital.”

Brookes also cited statistical information that increased spending is not the answer to improving the schools. Nor are smaller class sizes. Nor is advanced teacher education. So — to take just one of those facts — twenty years ago the knowledge was available telling our policy makers that spending more doesn’t solve the problem. Did that stop them from a twenty year spending spree? Heck no.

Why? They did it because they buckled to special interest pressure and their superficial arguments. Yes, Republicans included — in all 50 states and in Washington, D.C.

The answer, Brookes said twenty years ago, is focusing on accountability and control.

The performance of any system, of any institution, of any business is a function of its accountability to its constituents or customers.

Socialist systems fail not only because they fail to energize the most productive asset of all, the individual human mind, but because as entrenched monopolies they are so totally unaccountable to the individual consumer-because they provide no market in which competing ideas and products can be tested, priced, approved or rejected, modified or abandoned.

Without a market, without accountability, without individual power and control, you have a vast stagnant swamp.

And that may explain precisely why, after so many years of early relative success, American public education suddenly went into such a tailspin in the middle 1960s. That tailspin coincided with the rapid centralization of public education away from parental control and local accountability, and into the hands of state and federal bureaucracies.

It’s sad to read those words twenty years later. It’s also sad to read this:

It remains to be seen whether there is enough political will and courage to stand up to this education monopoly, particularly in the inner cities and among minorities, from which 40 percent of our future workforce entrants will come over the balance of this century.

Attention Tea Partiers: This question now falls to you — will you find the political will and courage? Future generations need you to make education a front and center issue.

Click here to read the 1990 speech by Warren T. Brookes.

Click here to read the op ed by P.J. O’Rourke.