Last week I wrote a short article on the moribund state of America’s public school system. It received quite a bit of attention. Most of the attention was from those who support the demise of statist education, but some lashed back in disgust. These people reel at a “game over” announcement, and call passionately for support of genuine reform. They want to pray for it. They want more tax dollars. They want rehabilitation.
But why do so many come to the defense of an institution that has failed to deliver on its messianic promises? In this period of dense innovation, why are they not open to new possibilities and new systems that could prove beneficial for the next generation of children?
I submit that there are two main reasons. First, we just do not know any different. This is a human condition. We have a tendency to think that what we know and have known is all that there is. “No public school? No summers? No homework? No bully on the playground stories? But this is part of what defines our society. It is part of who we are!” Exactly. This brings us to the second reason, which is really just a variant of the first.
But before we cite it, lets look at a few stats. We all can acknowledge that in general our society nurses at the breast of mommy state. This Forbes article tells us that over half of US Households receive government benefits. We are addicted to subsidies.
But what about public education? Total expenditures are in the neighborhood of $600 billion[i]. This is spent as inefficiently as you might expect from any other public institution. Inevitably the system ends up allocating capital in ways that create the need for more capital. Spending begets spending. This new job begets that new job. You think I’m exaggerating?
Schools are comprised of teachers, students, and principals…and nurses, speech therapists, paraprofessionals, and librarians…and administrative assistants, reading specialists, transportation coordinators, and other central-office staffers. This Friedman Foundation report (building off the work of others) analyzes the ballooning of these “other” education jobs—individuals employed by school districts (and paid with taxpayer dollars) who do not directly instruct children. And the numbers are eye-opening: Between 1950 and 2009, the number of K-12 public school students increased by 96 percent. During that same period, the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) school employees grew by 386 percent. Of those personnel, the number of teachers increased by 252 percent, while the ranks of administrators and other staff grew by 702 percent—more than 7 times the increase in students. Though this trend has abated somewhat in recent years, these increases remain dramatic. From 1992 to 2009, for example, the bump in school FTEs was 2.3 times greater than that of students, with forty-eight states upping the number of nonteaching personnel at a faster rate than their increase in students. Even where student populations dropped over the past two decades, public school employment increased.[ii]
What does all this mean? It means that the public school system employs a whole lot of people. It means that some of you reading this or some in your family or your neighbors are directly employed by the system. This is the second reason referenced above as to why so many cling to the legitimacy of public schools. To call it into question is to call ourselves into question. It is to admit we have been doing something wrong. It is a form of self-assault. It is collective self-deprecation. This is emotionally difficult if not impossible for most.
This is not even the most difficult part. Here is the big rub: some of us have to admit that we have done something that is not best for our child. But so what? Is that not always the case? We make mistakes.
And if you work in the system, so what? So what if you have devoted your life into something that is now dying? Why cling to a sinking ship? “But I’ve spent twenty years of my life on this ship! I have worked hard on the journey! I have so many memories! This ship was saving the children!”
No. It wasn’t. It served as a government ferry to transport us from the paradise of creative, vibrant toddlerhood to a land of logic-starved, subservient citizens in an ever-enlarging state. In the meantime, it has also helped to bankrupt the nation. As Kenny Rogers so eloquently put it, “you have to know when to fold them”.
We have no difficulty in grasping the failure of the US Postal Service in light of FedEx. Yet, we can’t make the jump in our minds to public education. If the state can’t cut it in delivering our mail, what makes us think it could actually do the job of educating our children?
This ship has always been like the titanic headed for an iceberg. Whether you are a passenger, a former passenger or simply employed by the cruise line, I would advise you to jump into a lifeboat. Say thanks for the memories, laugh a little and move on. It does no good to cling to a sinking vessel. It certainly makes no sense to do so while screaming at the top of your lungs that your ship is seaworthy. It is not. There is a better way. Get on board.