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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Teenage Wasteland- Public Schools

Economist John Wenders’ paper for the Cato Journal on waste in public education was far from “tedious” as he described it in an email. Wenders shows that in comparison to private schools, public schools waste is at least 25% to perhaps over 35% in costs while providing lower quality education in the bargain.

Wenders begins by simply summarizing the inevitable failure of monopolies in open markets. In the private world, where there is competition, newcomers find ways to make products cheaper. Eventually, all producers seek to make qualitatively better products because the consumers rule.

All of this changes where there is government involvement. Wenders writes:

Then, the competitive process turns from serving the consumer (by providing attractive, low-cost, alternatives) to serving the constituencies who benefit from the government regulation and control. Greed does not disappear under government control, it is simply directed away from serving the consumer toward supporting, entrenching, and enhancing the government power that controls the market and determines who benefits from that control.

Wenders describes the inability of the government controlled and regulated airline industry to reduce costs. The deregulation changed everything. The public school system remains unchanged and “operates in exactly the same way as any other regulated market and results in classic waste, rent dissipation, entrenched parasitic constituencies, and sclerosis”.

His analysis crushes the excuses expressed by the public education industry that the reasons for their costs exceeding private schools cannot be helped. Many of the costs for public schools are equally borne by private schools. The private schools do not “cream” away the better students “off the top”. Such government mandates that do burden the public schools such as special ed, education degree requirements, pupil to teacher ratios are all the result of successful lobbying by the educational establishment. Writes Wenders:

At the bottom of the education pyramid, the schools love these mandates because they can be used to justify increased funding and staffing. They become a convenient excuse: “The mandates made me do it.” For this reason, when mandates are under consideration, the schools, school boards, and teachers unions, if not active proponents, often simply sit on their hands. The mandates are brought up and disavowed only when the inflated cost of public education is pointed out. As mentioned earlier, charter schools often operate without many of these mandates and, as shown earlier, do so at about 60–65 percent of the cost of public schools. Why not dump the mandates by converting all the public schools to mandate-free charter schools?

We see that open admissions have no effect because so many poor performers drop out imposing no increased costs on the public schools.

The most waste is in the cost of teachers. Ironically tenure ensures the continued employment of low quality teachers and the lack of a meritocracy disheartens achievers. Meanwhile, the ed degree requirement pulls in lower achieving students. And the pay scale rewards phys ed teachers similar to high school science teachers. Longevity is secured within 2 years of employment. Incentives to produce do not exist.

But why does public education cost so much? Because they will spend as much as is given.

Writes Wenders:

Public school expenditure is not driven by opportunity costs—that is, the value of resources elsewhere—but by the ability of the public education industry to extract revenues from the taxpayers via the public choice mechanism. Expenditures are built from the top down, not the bottom up. Public school expenditures now average about $9,500 per student. If the various public treasuries were to give this industry $12,000 per student, it would spend $12,000 per student. If the industry were given $6,000 per student, despite the howls of pain from the various constituencies whose rents disappeared, expenditure would be reduced to $6,000 per student. And since there is no connection between public school spending and student achievement, in neither case would student achievement change.

That final line is the clincher. We taxpayers spend and spend and our students continue to drop in rankings on international student tests. It is time to place decisions into the hands of private education entrepreneurs who can offer various levels of quality and focus at various levels of cost.

We decide how and what to eat, how and what kind of house we live in and how and what to wear as clothing. Given the incredible need our children have to become educated for a very complex future, denying parents choice in education is like throwing money down the proverbial toilet. Wenders’ essay gives us data to back up this sad conclusion.


At 9:01 AM, Anonymous James said...

Wenders takes a system that's different in 50 states and reduces it to one critique - fascinating, but specious.

The track record of private entities being brought in to run and, moreover, "improve" education at the high school level is less than impressive. Wenders doesn't seem to take that into account, and while very focused on a libertarian perspective (well, gee, he's writing for the Cato Institute, duh), which is to say ideology, he manages to miss the substance of the problems dealt with in public schools. I won't bother to get into a listing of those here, but if this were as simple as airline deregulation I'd be all for it. It's actually vastly more complicated and even suggesting such a simplistic analogy speaks more to Wenders not understanding what he's talking about than it does with providing any fresh insight to what should be done to manage the problems that we have in front of us in this extremely important area of what we do with our children.

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another really devastating point is homeschoolers educate their children for very little, and children who have been homeschooled, as a group, do better than the poor public schooled children.

At 5:31 PM, Blogger James said...

"Another really devastating point is homeschoolers educate their children for very little, and children who have been homeschooled, as a group, do better than the poor public schooled children."

I'd love to see the evidence that supports that, and I don't want anything out of the National Home Education Research Institute which, simply put, has an interest certainly in painting the rosiest picture possible. I'm not aware of any evidence that supports this contention at all.

As far as I know there haven't been any studies to show how the overall homeschooled population is doing, rather most of the hype tends to be focused on such kids how more and more make it into regular colleges. There's also a lot of homeschooled kids out there who do well on standardized tests such as the SATs, but I have no idea if those kids actually represent the median homeschooled student, or rather outliers.

And why is it more expensive to send kids to public schools? Come on ... homeschoolers can afford to keep at least one parent at home, full time, who takes care of their kids. So you have to replace that parent with multiple people in a school, in addition to making sure that there's an overall environment in which the child is safe and is learning. That don't come cheap.

At 11:03 PM, Blogger SMiller said...

Can anyone find a mention in the last fifty years of public education of a school's saying, "No thanks, we don't need any more money"?

I think that makes Wenders' point.

At 1:08 AM, Anonymous hbowling said...

The systems are different in every school, not just in the 50 states. The systems are tailored to and serve the needs of those who will spend the most time in them -- faculty and staff. Students are transients in a system where they are, in theory, the focus. For students to absolutely be at the forefront of every thought and decision requires constant reinforcement and fierce leadership because many of the changes required to give students superior service requires faculty and staff to sacrifice some part of an established, entrenched worklife. People in all professions hate changes to established ways of doing things, especially when those ways benefit them the most.

If you are guaranteed a job in a place of business guaranteed to have customers, everyone only has to achieve what _they_ agree is minimal and in the education world these days, that's pretty darn minimal.

What would happen if there were no mandates? Could you be a more effective teacher?

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