Concerned About Education? Eliminate Public Schools
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Eliminate public schools? Don’t we have a duty to help poor children receive a decent education? Of course, but public schools are not an effective way to do it.

The public school is a monopoly, not subject to free-market competition, and lacks incentive to do things better for less money. (While real public school costs have quadrupled since the 1940s, literacy rates have declined.)

Many in Iowa City believe that we have good schools. And if by “good” they mean relatively safe, they are right. However, the high test scores are evidence of good students (with highly-educated parents). They score well despite the schools and teachers, which, for gifted students, make little difference in achieving basic competence. But the longer an average student stays in school after fourth grade, the more her academic performance declines relative to international standards.

Public schools have forgotten their primary purpose: Teaching academics. They follow anti-intellectual theories emanating from teachers’ schools and scorn teaching actual knowledge, disparaging it as “rote learning.” In their new role as social engineers, believing that scholastic achievement is “elitist,” they have made equality their goal, foregoing excellence. The result is seen on Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking”— adults who don’t know which century the Civil War occurred in. Instead of “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic,” the new “3 Rs” are “rainforest, racism and recycling.”

And regarding “values,” some parents believe the Bible should be taught in school and others prefer teaching condom use. In a public system there is only one way, but under a private system, parents could choose schools that reflect their own values – true diversity.

“But what about the poor?” Need-based scholarships are common at private schools, and there is a growing field of independent scholarship funds. Middle-class parents could take out loans, and would have more money if property taxes to fund schools were eliminated. Most parents, rich and poor, will do what it takes to give their children a good education. And when people pay for something themselves, they feel “ownership” and expect more from it.

Some argue that since everyone in society benefits from an educated populace, everyone should be forced to fund it. However, if a “public good” is really so good, then people will voluntarily support it, like churches and the arts. Americans are the most generous people in the world and will fund education, especially when we know that schools will not waste our money.

Would poor children end up attending less expensive schools? Undoubtedly, but cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean less effective. Low-tech, time-tested methods produce results (one-room schoolhouse students could read when they graduated, unlike many low-income kids today). America didn’t have public schools until the 1850s, but the literacy rate in some states was actually higher in 1840 than today.

Advocates assert that public schools are more “democratic,” ignoring that America was the most advanced democracy in history before public schools. They believe that if wealthier parents were forced to keep their kids in decaying public schools (so all kids suffered, not just some) the schools would suddenly be run differently. But not giving people a choice among schools is what divides society by perpetuating poverty.

What would the U.S. look like without public schools? Governments would auction the existing schools to interested groups – including parents and teachers – who could get loans to purchase the schools.

Groups could operate the schools however they thought best, unhampered by the crippling regulations that currently make private schools almost like public ones. But they would face competitive pressures to run the schools well, or parents would enroll their children elsewhere (or start another school). Bureaucratic overhead would be greatly reduced (in New York City, the public school system has ninety times as many administrators per student as the Catholic school system), leaving more money for attracting and keeping good teachers.

It wouldn’t be easy make the change. The teachers’ union has a big-money hold on politicians. Also, it’s difficult to envision a system different from what we know. But we shouldn’t be afraid to jettison what doesn’t work in favor of the model that works for other industries. Attempts to improve our schools will continue to fail until we recognize that the problem with public schools is that they are public schools.