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Sunday, May 17, 2009

While I also agree that home schooline and private schools offer many benefits, I think that there are certain failings of both systems. My biggest concern in this regard is the restriction, and sometimes the nearly complete lack of, social interaction. In the public school system you must not only learn to interact with a wider variety of people, you also must compete with the the other students. In the public school system, you are in constant competition in everything from social status to time spent with the teacher in an overcrowded classroom. This forces a student to differentiate himeself in order to receive the attention that may be needed for that student to excel. While this may not be fair, it is closer to the experiences they will daily encounter in the adult world. As such, I believe it to be great preparation. Granted, ebonics doesn't serve a great purpose and yes, correct use of the english language can be a casualty of the public school system. I don't see this so much as a failing of the public school system as a reflection of the prevailing culture.

The idea of vouchers to choose schools I think is not the answer. Even the best schools have only so many slots that can be filled before they begin to be overcrowded and thus less effective. The real problem I believe is in the teachers. Rather than allowing parents to funnel all of their kids to a few renowned schools, why not increase the incentive for teachers to be better at their jobs. As it is, teaching is not a profession that is very glamorous or lucrative. If a system were implemeted that was incentive based and tied to student performance, teachers would have a real reason to invest in their students and would see tangible, financial results from their investments. Test scores, reading comprehension levels and graduation rates are all things that should be tied into a teacher's pay rate. We look at teachers now and hope that they are in the profession because they care about our future, but that isn't always the case. Teachers are no different than the rest of the world in that they are largely motivated by self interest. By funding incentives for teachers, we as a nation invest in our own children and their devlopment, which will prove profitable to all of us in the future.

I think your analysis neglect a very key aspect of this policy issue. Public education is supplied in the context of a labor union (teachers) which not only has a large degree of market power but also a significant degree of political power. Mixing economic and political power is destined for unsatisfactory education, in general, over time.

The mixture of political power with economic power also, in my view, makes it very unlikely that your suggestions are feasible without a significant change in the very way in which K-12 education is provided and financed. For your suggestions to be feasible the economic power must be diminished, even ended, and this is unlikely to happen as long as the political power of the union also exists.

This is also illustrated well by the difficulty in moving to the use of vouchers. The union has, generally, effectively used political power to block efforts to reform the system in the way of vouchers, which by the way would represent a significant threat to the economic power of the union.

One last note is that I suspect that if we think just a bit about how a reform such as voucher would work out over many years in a truly dynamic system, we should be cautious in being too static in our analysis. It seems to me we would see many more variations in schools and in K-12 education than is the case with the present system. Such variations would be of great importance for the ability of our system of political economy to prosper 10 and 20 years out. The present system diminishes this sort of variation and this hinders future prosperity.
The fact that public education is supplied by the teacher's union is indeed an aspect of this issue that I completely neglected to consider. This is because I have taken for granted (perhaps eroneously) that no one would be opposed to receiving incentives based on performance. Certainly, the union would be opposed to incentive based pay on its own, which was my initial thought. However, with the base pay intact, and with additional funding, I can't see why the union ould be opposed to teachers being rewarded for increased effectiveness and productivity. The only reason I can see the union wielding it's political power to hinder something like this is if it wasn't beneficial to the members of the union in some way and I don't see that as the case if they are simply afforded the opportunity to make more money if they so choose.
It seems to me that part of the reason the union has blocked efforts to reform using the vouchers is that giving parents more freedom of choice as to where their child attends will inevitably lead to some teachers being out of work as students migrate out of certain districts. Offering incentives could correct this problem as it offers equal opportunities for teachers in all districts to receive a higher income by being better and more dedicated to their jobs and it doesn't give students the option to leave. Being a person that feels that teachers (and parents, for that matter) are not nearly invested enough in a child's intellectual progress, I don't find very many things that are more motivating to that end than increasing pay.
I can see how vouchers could lead to more variations in K-12 education than we are currently seeing and that could be a good thing as you suggest. But with that variation I also have a concern that a bigger gap between the quality of education could result. Children who are economically able to move schools move to better schools and those who aren't are forced to stay put. Bussing can't possibly resolve this issue in its entirety and as a result, some of the students who need it most are left behind receiving subpar education without access to the means provided to rectify the situation. I'm thinking it develops into another situation where the rich get richer' but this time educationally. We have to find a way to make everyone better right where they're at.
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