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I advocate a 100% elimination of government K12 schools. 100%. No secrets there. Even if I were forced to accept government schooling, I’d like to see those schools have much more discretion in how they organize curricula and just as important more discretion in how they discipline their students (I don’t mean ruler smacks, I mean an entire ethic of seriousness and accountability). For various reasons I don’t have fantasies about a voucher program, but what I argue below is germane to that.

When I suggest these sorts of things it is not long until a good objection comes up: what about the students who will fall through the cracks in the more competitive, accountable, “private” system I prefer? Well, that objection seems reasonable until we reflect for a moment on it. Implicit in that rejection is that the current government schooling system lets no one fall through the cracks. But that in fact is the defining tragedy of government schooling – that even though all people are “guaranteed” a free and equal access to quality education, we are further away from achieving that than we were 60 years ago. I know, I know, it must be because George Bush and the Republicans starved the schools for funding – except that the K12 sector is not suffering from a lack of funds. In a future post perhaps we’ll show in glorious detail what I mean. Are there fantastic government schools? Well I happen to live in a neighborhood that boasts two of the top 100 high schools in the nation.

However, think of what happens if we voucherize education and also allow all schools to be selective about who remains in their schools. Of course some students will find that there is no place for them in the current schools that we can conceive of. But maybe that is a good thing. Not all students ought to be in school, even some of the more elementary grades of it. But I don’t really want to push on that because it’s like getting into an argument about God.  I’d rather push on this: in a world of one-size-fits-all government education where students are locked into the schools they live near and into the standardized curricula, assessments, tracking, etc. there is simply no other option for a kid that falls through the crack. And many do. Take a look at the data on high school dropouts, on the percentage of days missed by certain students, and so on. Do we think that when they are not in school something good is coming of them? We have labor laws and occupational licensing laws that make it hard for young people to earn a living, and the data on youth unemployment, incarceration rates and recividism rates are not all that encouraging. Beyond that, in several inner city public school systems even the kids that do not “fall through the cracks” do in fact fall through. My city school district spends well over $20,000 per student to educate students. Less than 50% graduate. But even among those who graduate, a very very tiny percentage of them have the ability to go onto success in most any college, including the local community college.

And so when folks imagine all of the awful ways that private schools may fail or may not serve various customers or may allow some teachers to teach nonsense to their students, they have in their mental model a government schooling system that actually works. But this is no thought experiment. It’s not like we have to speculate at what the counterfactual is. We are living the counterfactual and it has been found wanting. I DO have ideological blinders on here when I say what I am about to say, but here goes anyway. Can you imagine ANY scenario where a fully privatized system would do worse that what happens to children in government schools (in cities especially) today? Really? What would be going on?

And think about what might be different if poor students had vouchers attached to them. In that world, suppose they get booted out of the existing private schools or choose not to work hard there. They still have voucher dollars tied to them. And what does this mean? It means that some entrepreneur, somewhere, can figure out a way to serve these kids purely to selfishly have access to those voucher funds. Strangely this seems to be one reason why voucher systems are opposed. It is, however, THE reason to favor them. It is the only way that these kids who have fallen through the cracks might actually get picked up. Maybe they’ll be led into some sham school. Maybe the money will simply be stolen. But maybe we’ll figure out a whole host of new ways to engage young people, prepare them for college or for the professions or for a host of other things, and private entrepreneurs would be free to try out any number of them so long as the rules surrounding the voucher were flexible (they would, of course, NOT be … which is one reason I do not support school vouchers – more on that in another post).

Under the current system of government schooling, not only are we sure that lots of kids will fall through the cracks, tell me where the incentives are in the system for anyone to serve these children better? There are not enough incredible people like Bobby Hurley Sr. in the world to shoulder it all on their own. I wished there were. But there aren’t.

6 Responses to “One-Size Fits All Means One Fail Afflicts All Too”

  1. Student says:

    “Not all students ought to be in school, even some of the more elementary grades of it. But I don’t really want to push on that because it’s like getting into an argument about God.”

    It may be like getting into an argument about God, but it is an argument that needs to be had. When students are forced to be in school against their will not only do they suffer the cost of not being able to do other things that they would enjoy and the forfeiting of generating wealth elsewhere (if there weren’t laws preventing them from working), but (in my opinion) the students around them suffer the cost of being in a classroom with a student that for whatever reason is not devoted to his studies. The teacher still has an obligation to spend time and resources trying to “educate” the student. The school district (tax payers) are still throwing away upwards of $200,000 dollars, as you mention, for this student. Probably worst of all, the other students in the class suffer because they are forced to work with this student on projects, and suffer from the what is often a negative attitude from the student who doesn’t want to be there. I say that last one solely from my experience; perhaps not every student that doesn’t want to be in school has a negative attitude (but I can understand why the would), but even if they don’t you will still suffer the other costs, and if they do have this attitude… it can have a very serious effect on the other students’ ability to learn. I saw this happen in my primary and secondary schools, and worst of all in college. As a workshop leader for some classes in college, one of the most important things we learned about group learning is the ability of one person’s attitude to affect the entire group (positive or negative).

    The government mandates that students must attend primary and secondary(?) schools are very costly, at least from my intuition. Perhaps there is literature suggesting there is some net benefit from compulsory “education,” and if there is I would really like to see how that argument is made. Even the social mentality that “all kids should get a [college] education” is costly. We have kids even at the University of Rochester wasting 4 years of their lives, imposing some of the costs mentioned earlier on their peers, and the loss of whatever money is being paid for their “education” by whoever is paying for it (likely all of us because of the way government aid works).

  2. sherlock says:

    Excellent post. I was having this discussion with my cousin the other day but couldn’t articulate my argument quite like you have. Now I’ll just send her the link.

  3. Speedmaster says:

    While Milton Friedman is a hero of mine, and one of the biggest defenders of liberty in the 20th century, I disagree with him on vouchers. I still find it objectionable to force my neighbors to pay for my children’s education. And I think it would just give govt. additional control over private schools, ultimately ruining them or at least bringing them down to the lowest common denominator.

    I concede that if I ever find myself disagreeing with the likes of Milton Friedman, Walter Williams, etc., I’d better have a d@mned good reason and have my story straight, because I’m most likely wrong. 😉

    On one-size fits all government control of schools, I find it a bit puzzling. Progressives love diversity (at least what they claim is diversity) and all that is “local.” Top-down control of schools and national standards are neither.

    >> “Implicit in that rejection is that the current government schooling system lets no one fall through the cracks.”

    I think a plurality of students in inner-city schools across the country are evidence that the cracks are large indeed.

    “Last year, the average Detroit public high school student missed at least 28 days of school.”
    ( http://bit.ly/xeQA4u )

  4. sherlock says:

    Anybody see Krug’s article on eductaion yesterday?


    I like how me makes no note of WHY tuitin costs have increased. Just that they have, and everyone should else should pay for them.

  5. Student says:

    An error is in my comment. I meant to quote a cost of $20,000 on student education, not $200,000 (I added an extra 0 by mistake).

  6. Brent says:

    I totally agree with you. My wife teaches Kindergarten. I can honestly say my opinion is if any child falls through the cracks, it is the fault of the parents. Whether it is one parent, two parents, or grandparents through abandonment. There are problems in schools everywhere. But quite simply put, if your child has fallen through the cracks, it is because you got what you tolerated, or your child probably didn’t belong where they were…

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