Saturday, March 18, 2017

Does Government Have A Duty To Educate Its Citizens? Part 2

This is a follow up response to my original post a week ago on whether or not government has a duty to educate its citizens. I originally wrote a critique of the speech made by the first speaker, Chuck Braman, and now I'm going to write a line-by-line critique of the arguments the second speaker gave, Roberto Guzman. He writes at the blog Capitalism and Ideas and his blog post, written here, is inspired by his arguments in the debate. So without further ado:

Larry Elder makes the point that government education is similar to an item on a restaurant menu that not even the waitress would order.

Yeah, unless they can't afford private education, especially if a "free market" Republican governor like Scott Walker tries to destroy the teacher's unions.

Roughly 11% of Americans send their kids to private school, but nearly 30% of parents who work in public schools do so. In urban areas such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Cincinnati it hovers closer to 40%. To reiterate, these are government education providers choosing to send their kids to the competing private schools.

I couldn't corroborate that 30% claim and Roberto does not include a source. The number I see is 19% of public school teachers send their kids of private schools, though 28% have tried alternatives to public schools at some point. This is definitely higher than the national average, but why are so many public educators sending their kids to private schools, especially in urban centers? Well, it's because many urban schools suck and teachers who work there know this. So if they can afford to send their kids to private schools, they will. The median high school teacher salary is $57,200, for middle school it's $55,860, and for elementary school it's $54,890. But the vast majority of Americans won't be able to afford this option, not when the national average for private school tuition is $10,003 a year. Even if it was half that, most Americans still wouldn't be able to afford it, not with 50% of Americans making less than $30,000 a year.

What about the government officials themselves? 37% of Representatives send their kids to private school. For US senators, that number is a staggering 45%. President Obama, himself a product of private education, made a big show of vetting DC public schools when he was elected. After all of the hullabaloo, he sent his daughters to the most elite private school in the capital. If government education is so great, why do its biggest advocates avoid it like tap water in Mexico?

Most members of congress are far wealthier than your average American. In 2012 the base salary for all members of the US House and Senate was $174,000 a year. Few than 3% of Americans earn that much. And this doesn't even count additional income from book selling, speeches, and gifts from lobbyists. People will always be able to pay for better private education than what the public system can offer. Nobody denies that. But this is not an argument to privatize all public education.

The reason is that empirically, government education has been a total failure.

Wrong. To say government education has been a "total failure" implies it has always been a failure, throughout every year of its existence, and in every single public school. That's not the case. In fact, there are many more success stories for government education than failures. Universal government education helped decrease illiteracy rates, and for over a century provided education to millions who would otherwise not afford it.

In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted by the US Department of Education found that 14% of adults scored below basic on the exam and qualified as “either illiterate or barely literate.” That’s nearly 30 million people, 45% of which graduated from high school! 
Far from being “the bedrock of our democracy”, the US Department of Education came into existence in 1979, during the Carter years. Before that, in 1940, the US had a literacy rate exceeding 97% despite the fact that the population had no more than an 8th grade education. Now, nearly 60% of graduating seniors in the US that enter community colleges require remedial education.

According to Our World in Data, the literacy rate in the US in 2003 was 99%. The "barely literate" quote is nowhere to be found in the link to the National Center for Educational Statistics he gave, and it defines the 14% of US adults who read at the below basic level as "no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills." In other words, these are people who can read, they just really suck at it. A huge problem no doubt, but one that better public education can fix, not no public education.

Education is another aspect of raising children. Americans expect that parents will shelter, clothe and feed their children without complete government control; why not allow for the same thing in education?

Because the average American makes less than $30,000 a year and the average tuition for private school is $10,000 per child, per year. Even if it were half that, it would still be unaffordable to the majority of Americans. This would make educating your kids something out of reach for tens of millions of Americans, effectively turning education into a luxury item only the upper half of income earners can easily afford. And for many of those who could afford private education, it still might be difficult. Some poorer families would decided whether they're going to send their kids to school this year, or buy health insurance, or buy a new car.

In principle, there is no difference between a child with an empty mind and a child with an empty stomach: both needs ought to be served by the parents, not the state.

If the parents can't afford to fill the child's stomach or mind, then the state should step in to fill that role. That's one of the purposes of governments.

However, the government education system is a monopoly that exercises absolute control over the quality of teachers and the material that is presented. There are no truly “private” schools since each one exists with government permission. Instead of viewing the parent as a client with needs to fulfill in a market setting, the school bureaucrats see parents as obstacles in their way.

Not really. It varies from state to state what private schools are required to do. The state isn't a total monopoly on teachers and material. The requirement by states for private schools to participate in Regents competency testing is a good thing. It ensures private school kids aren't learning nonsense and can pass standardized testing. Without things like this, a private school could teach kids the flat earth theory as "science." The market approach to education as the sole model fails, because it will fail to ensure all children have an education.

The alternative to coercive, government education is voluntary education on the free market. Advocates for free market education do not trivialize its importance by asking to get government out; we hold that education is too important to let the government in. Free markets allow individuals to patronize those establishments that provide the best value for the cheapest price. This is the way to establish rational, objective standards in education.

Except that for the 50% of Americans making less than $30k a year, they won't have much of a choice. And with zero government oversight, what's the likelihood that for those who do somehow manage to send their kids to a private school, that the quality will be any good? You see, today private school is mostly for those in the upper middle class and the rich (though of course not exclusively). They pay good money for their kid's private education. And that's why private schools tend to be better than public schools. But if there were no public schools, you'd get tons of shitty private schools on the market, and many poor people would have no choice but to use them because schools are not like barber shops or pizza stores. You're not going to get one on every block, where you can easily shop around as the market intends. You're going to have limited choices, especially in poor areas, and with zero standards or oversight, some could be far worse than the worse public schools in terms of education quality. And some will be scams, like Trump University. Just watch John Oliver's expose on charter schools from last year about the problems of diverting public money to private schools when there's little oversight.

Now I know Roberto is against fraud. He said in the debate that if some school teaches science, and they have kids throwing darts at a board, they can be sued or charged with fraud. But who gets to decide what is science and what is fraud here? If a school teaches the Bible as scientific fact, is that fraud? Does the state get to decide what is science? These were never answered. The free market will not establish objective standards, since one-third of all Americans do think the Bible is a science book, and that number could rise dramatically without education that is science based.

Government standards, on the other hand, are based on the arbitrary whims of bureaucrats rather than what is actually demanded in the market. According to the prevailing view, an Ivy League scholar with multiple degrees has less ability to teach than someone with a bachelor’s in education “bulletin board” design.

Government standards, although not perfect and improvable, are not exactly based on arbitrary whims. They are often based on studies on what works best. Sometimes they're flawed. But private schools can, and many will, make their standards arbitrary if there is zero regulation. Of course there will be excellent private schools way better than any public school  there are now. The duty of the government is not to force all people to use public schools, it's to provide public schools for the majority of people who cannot afford private schools. My view is perfectly compatible with people being able to send their kids to private school.

Compare education to another, relatively freer industry: technology. Today we carry within our pockets micro-machines that are more powerful than mainframes that took up entire rooms just 30 years ago! 81% of households below the poverty level have access to these miraculous devices. This technology was created not by government bureaucrats, but by entrepreneurs who sought to make a profit by providing value to paying customers.

The government funded research into the original internet backbone in the 1960s, starting with ARPANET, and then with the government funded National Science Foundation Network's backbone to eventually get us the modern commercialized internet we know today. This is what allows these "miraculous devices" to communicate. Public money funds a tremendous amount of research and development in technology and medicine that private companies actually profit off of. So Roberto is just wrong if he's trying to make a sweeping historical claim that all of our technology was developed entirely in the private sector with private money. The federal government spends almost $140 billion a year on research and development.

Indeed, there is a burgeoning industry for private tutoring which features companies such as Hooked on Phonics, Varsity Tutors, Coursera, Rosetta Stone, Khan Academy,, and many others. The trend is that technology is rendering government education largely obsolete and unable to compete.

I'm all for online education to compete with the traditional brick and mortar institutions. But having young kids at home by themselves while their parents are out at work learning online opens up many potential problems. I'm not against sensible private education models to fill in the market and replace public schoolsif the private institutions are regulated so they don't teach nonsense as fact. For those who cannot afford or find private models, it's the government's duty to teach them. That's what the duty is for. It's to educate those who cannot educate themselves.

Meanwhile, companies like Boeing, Apple, IBM and Google already teach summer workshops and seminars for students free of charge. If government were out of the picture, many tech companies would be able to invest in computer science academies that specialize in teaching the students how to use their best-selling products of today and program the revolutionary products of tomorrow.

Or they could do the same thing in public schools and invest in computer labs, similar to what Mark Zuckerberg did. It would allow those tech companies to teach kids technology and also build goodwill with their brand. They may even turn their students into loyal customers for life.

Many concerned people may ask: what about the poor? Would they not be able to receive an education if there were no government schools? The critics that take this line seem to forget the fact that most parents, even the poor, love their children and want to see them succeed. In fact, one could argue that the reason some parents may not be as involved in their kids’ education in the first place is because they have been taught by “education theorists” and government policy-wonks that they should stay out of the way and let the state handle it. But I digress.

Yes, many of the poor love their children and want to see them succeed, but many simply can't afford the $10k annual tuition that private schools charge on average. It's not that they're taught by policy wonks to let the state to take care of it, it's that they can't afford private school and therefore rely on the state. This is one of only two paragraphs Roberto says about the poor. That's it. It goes to show you how little thought he's put into the most important aspect of privatizing education and how much of a lack of concern he has.

We can derive solace that education in a free market would be cheaper, since government involvement creates artificial scarcity both by limiting the number of schools that come into existence as well as the limiting the number of educators via certification. Parents would also have less of their income taxed away and would therefore be able to direct more funds into education if they have kids, and this would include the poor.

Even if private education was half the cost on average that it is now, which would make it $5k a year per student, we're still talking about ~$60k to put a child through 12 years of school. And then there's college on top of that. With 60 million Americans making less than $30k a year, this will be very difficult, even if they got to keep all of their taxed income. And making teachers pass certification ensures they have the basic competency to teach. Without that, anyone can call themselves an "educator" and have literally no qualifications.

If there remains a need for education among the poorest, there is always charity. Even with huge amounts of taxation, charities have given millions of dollars to families of low income. For instance, in NYC alone one charity (the Children’s Scholarship Fund) donated $525 million over the past 13 years alone. One can only imagine what that figure would look like if the government were not sapping over $900 billion a year from American taxpayers!

So here's his solution to the poor not being able to pay for their education: charity! Charity would certainly help the problem, as it already does for college students. But it's not a reliable solution, since it will inevitably result in only helping some children and not all. Public education is the safety net that allows no one to fall through it. But I'm not arguing that public education has no problems. Of course it does. I'd make sure teachers are paid on performance and that their tenure depends on it. I'd offer financial incentives for kids to do better in class, like paying them to get good grades. Failing schools would need to be fixed with new management. I have no problem with a private sector competing with public schools so long as they meet government standards and I'm open to the idea of parents who pay for their kid's private education to be allowed to not have to pay taxes on education since they're taking their kids out of the system, costing it less.

Also, many of the problems with failing students are due to the fact that many parents don't do a good job motivating their children to be educated. They don't build within them a thirst for knowledge, and when you get millions of families like this it creates a culture of apathy and willful ignorance. I went to a high school in the inner city across the street from a housing project, and I can tell you, about 20% of the students there were really bad apples, coming into class late, disrespecting the teacher, interrupting the class, and they ruined it for everyone else. It created an atmosphere where nobody wanted to learn and there was an incentive to misbehave. That's a big part of the problem. If students were behaved and if they had a desire to learn, the public education that exists now would be sufficient for many of them to graduate with proficiency in all the major subjects. Bad parenting is to blame as much as bad schools are.

To the extent that a market is free is the extent to which individuals are free to offer value for value, without coercion or physical force. When man has the ability to invest and build without confiscatory taxation or hyper-regulation, he is free to unleash the power of his mind. Imagine what the education industry would like if we allowed the genius of a Steve Jobs, a Henry Ford, or a Thomas Edison to tackle the problem at hand: how to deliver high quality education at the lowest cost.

When man has no money and can't feed or educate himself because he can't afford it, he has little to no ability to unleash his mind. In fact, his mind may be malnourished, just like his body. That's what will happen to millions of people if we get rid of public education altogether. We definitely do need geniuses tackling the thorny problem of education reform. But privatizing everything is not the solution. The solution is to reform public education using new tactics based on solid results such as with knowledge from other countries who do it better and whose students beat ours in test scores and proficiency. We need to make sure private schools meet basic standards, and we should be open to letting a regulated market of private schools grow and prosper. But government's duty is to ensure all its citizens have access to education for those who cannot afford it.

Education is not a privilege nor is it a right; it is a service, made possible by the effort of those with the ability and the will to provide it.

Access to education is a right, like access to healthcarein a first world country that can clearly provide it. Liberals need to start saying it that way, because education is indeed a service. It's the access to it that is the right.

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