Now that Obamafest is over and the Republicans have the spotlight for a few days, I would like to spend some time going over a few areas where I think the Democrats are going to fail us in the next four years.
Please understand, I will vote for Obama in November and consider him to be the better candidate. However, there is room for improvement. Most of my readers favor the Democratic Party and speaking ill of that which cannot be questioned may be considered blasphemous. However, I think that a better world is possible and would rather speak in defense of that world than commit myself to orthodoxy in matters of politics.
Plus, I will do the same to the Republicans when the Republican convention is over – showing why, even after acknowledging some significant Democratic Party failings, they are still better than the Republicans (for now). So, you’ll have something to look forward to.
I think that the most significant area in which the Democratic Party will fail us is in the area of education. They are committed to a form of education that has seen virtually no innovation over the past 200 years, where we seem to be spending more and more money to get less and less. The way out of this trap is a policy which Democrats tend to vehemently oppose . . . the policy of ‘school choice’.
The problems that we have had in public education are very much like the problems we had with respect to a public post office. The government set up the post office as a (virtual) government monopoly. One of the consequences of this was stagnation. The Post Office never came up with a single innovation in the realm of communication. The telegraph, telephone, radio, television, email, and the internet all came from elsewhere. All of them resulted in tremendous leaps in communication technology. And through it all, what we got from the Post Office was a continual set of demands that the government put up barriers wherever possible against whatever might threaten its existence.
Certainly, the Post Office adopted a few innovations. They moved from ponies to trucks, then to airplanes. They invented the ZIP Code, and adopted OCR technology and bar scanners as a way to help sort the mail. However, these were variations on a theme. None of these were new themes.
By now, I have almost entirely opted out of the “post office” system. I do not think that I have purchased a stamp in over 5 years, and almost everything that I pull out of my mailbox (when I check my mail) goes into the garbage. It’s a waste of time, energy, and paper.
What we see in the public education system is substantially the same problem. We see an institution that has not produced a single piece of innovation over the past 200 years, which still does things in substantially the same way as our great^8 grandparents, demanding that the government take measures to ensure that nothing happens that might threaten their viability Specifically, they demand that the government do what it can to deny potential customers a choice of whether to use their service, or to opt out.
We even hear the same arguments in these two cases.
The defenders of the Post Office would protest that if people had a choice as regarding methods of communication, that private industry would take away the most profitable options, leaving the Post Office with all of the inefficient and expensive jobs to do. Specifically, a private post office would lower the price of in-city mail (where economies of scale allow for economic efficiencies), but raise the price of rural mail, creating a rural stamp that would be many times more expensive than a city stamp.
To prevent this dreadful state of affairs from coming about, it was considered essential that we lock ourselves into a form of communication that would not change over 200 years, while the rest of the world sped by with new technologies. Until, finally, email and the web came along, and the Post Office could no longer hold back the tide.
However, innovation became possible simply because the Post Office could not eliminate all possible alternatives to its service. Email snuck in through the gaps in the Post Office conceptual radar, and was far too efficient for the Post Office to contain once it got out and started being used.
Similarly, in the area of school choice, we hear the argument that if people had school choice then the ‘best students’ would go elsewhere, leaving the public schools to take care of those who were particularly hard to educate for any number of reasons, from mental and physical handicaps to poor home environment.
Again, the result is that there has been as little innovation in the way we educate our children as there has been in the way we deliver mail. We are stuck using the same old systems.
The thing is, if we could restore innovation, some of that innovation would be put to work on the very “problem cases” that those who defend the status quo claim to be worried about. In communication, the innovations of the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and the internet have reached and have benefitted a substantial portion of the rural community. Methods of communication have been invented that can broadcast information to rural areas almost as cheaply as it can transmit information within a city.
In fact, helping those who are “problem cases” is one of the areas where we are most in need of innovation – for their sake. So, it would be ironic to use them as an excuse for policies that stifle innovation.
Similarly, there is no reason to believe why innovations in education will not include methods of innovation that we can then apply to “problem cases” – giving even them a much better education than they get from us pursuing the same methods decade after decade after decade.
The key to innovation is to give people a choice. The key is to let people take their portion of the education budget (the amount of money that would be spent to educate their child) and tell the parents, “Okay, you have the freedom to look at alternatives to the traditional brick-and-mortar method of education.”
Another concern with school choice is that some people will not choose wisely. They will choose to mis-educate their children in myths and fairy tales that have no relationship to reality. In the extreme case, we may worry about people setting up versions of the Pakistani ‘madras’ – a school where nothing is taught but holy scripture, and that is taught in a way that makes the student a threat to the well-being of others.
These are legitimate concerns, but the concern does not carry very far. In effect, this argument states, “If we give a person a choice between A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J, then some of them may choose J. J is a horrible choice. Therefore, we must compel everybody to choose A.”
Clearly the argument is not valid. It is possible to prohibit option J while still permitting options B through I. This type of argument is too often advanced by people who have strong reason to ban competition to option A, and they are using this piece of sophistry employing option J as a scapegoat.
Besides, among the community of non-believers, I think we are very much in need of schools where a child can go where they are not harmed by rituals that daily declare non-belief the patriotic equivalent of rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. They can benefit from a school that does not post signs that tell them, “If you do not trust in God, then we do not consider you one of us.” They can attend a biology class where the teacher is not the least bit nervous about saying, “Today, we will start discussing the theory of evolution.” A school where the history teacher is not trying to teach the literal truth of the Bible or that America is a ‘Christian Nation’. A school where the English teacher is not suspiciously keeping an eye on the atheist in the fourth row because, “We all know what kind of people those atheists are. They have no morals.” A school that teaches logic, where a Sophomore is expected to know the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning and can identify thirty informal fallacies.
There has to be a market for at least one school like this in every major city.
An argument for school choice will allow the possibility that these will be among the schools that a school choice initiative would support. If this type of school is truly a school of quality (as I expect it would be), the success of students who go to those schools would be a great inducement to others to seek the same type of education for their own children.
Anybody with a better idea should never be worried about a bit of competition.