School Reform, competition, and the role of incentives

This is the third article in a series.

Have you heard? The people who work for the public schools – from administrators on down to teachers and staff – even the bus drivers and janitors – are all the most wonderful people in the world. They all have the purest of motives. Those who administer and teach have the proper training and are highly educated.

You can believe all that if you want – but then you have to do some herculean rationalizing to explain – to use Professor Bruce Thornton’s phrase – the “vast ocean of politicized mediocrity” that constitutes most of the public (government-run) school system.

Providing one of the countless examples of why my opening paragraph is laughable, education researchers Jay Greene and Marcus Wintersrecently issued a report explaining yet again how “incentives” work. Inan article for the Tampa Tribune, they wrote:

“Over the last 30 years, special education has grown dramatically in Florida and across the nation. But in the last decade, Florida has managed to constrain growth in special education in a way that other states have not: since 1999, special education rates have actually declined in Florida while national disability rates have increased by about 5 percent.

What’s Florida’s secret? According to our new study for the Manhattan Institute, the state’s McKay Scholarship Program, a novel voucher program for disabled students, is an important piece of the puzzle.

In Florida, as in most other states, schools receive additional funding for each student identified as disabled. Often, these additional resources are greater than the actual cost of providing special-education services, giving schools a financial incentive to increase their diagnoses.”

Anyone who has had to deal with many of the insular, self-esteem challenged and myopic “professionals” in the public schools takes pleasure when those “professionals” are caught red-handled playing games. In this case, it’s misdiagnosing children as learning disabled for money.

You can read the Greene and Winters study at the Manhattan Institute’s website here.

For the past couple of days I’ve been highlighting excerpts from Joe Bast’s and Herbert Walberg’s book, “Let’s Put Parents Back in Charge! ” The little paperback does a great job summing up the major concepts citizens need to understand if they’re going to support the right kind of school reform.

The only reason failure and mediocrity continues in the public education system is because there are no negative consequence suffered by those who defend and propagate the current status quo. Here are a few excerpts from the Bast/Walberg book put into bullet points which summarize the problem and the solution:

  • Under the current government school monopoly, most parents are unable to remove their children from a failing school no matter how poorly it performs… Under a voucher program…complacency would end. Enrollment would be strongly affected by customer satisfaction, and conscientious board members could use falling enrollment as proof that real reforms are needed.
  • Under a voucher plan, taxes raised for education would go to parents instead of government school administrators. Some parents would still choose government schools for their children, and these schools will need to be overseen by school boards. But those boards would be much better positioned to do their jobs correctly.

How Vouchers Improve Schools

  • A voucher system would give the tax dollars already being collected for education to parents, rather than to government bureaucracies. Parents would then use the dollars to pay tuition at the schools of their choice, whether government or private.
  • Voucher programs would break up the government school monopoly, replacing it with competitive markets in K-12 education. Every parent would have the power to withdraw his or her child from a school that is failing to do a satisfactory job and enroll the child instead in a school that promises to do a better job. A well-designed voucher program would give most parents many schools from which to choose – with some restrictions.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the great points from the book by Bast and Walberg. And as I mentioned, it’s a quick read. In their conclusion they suggest the additional benefit of genuine school reform – it takes politics out of public education. Putting parents in charge through vouchers would end the era –

“in which interest groups used their control over the schools to benefit themselves rather than prepare children to lead productive and fulfilling lives.”

FOLLOW-UP RECOMMENDED READING: The Problems with Special Ed

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Additional resources:

From the Heartland Institute:

School Reform News

Education Issues Suite

From the Heritage Foundation:

A Parent’s Guide to Education Reform

Education Policy Studies

©2009 John Francis Biver