What is this post not about?
Because this is a part of my series on good government, my purpose here is not to discuss my ideas about the best way to educate children and adults. Posts about that will be given separately, and will not be part of my government series. My purpose here is to show what the relationship between government and education should be.
So what should the role for government in education be?
My long-term preference is that government not be involved at all in education. One of my core beliefs is that parents are responsible for their children. Therefore, a child's education should be determined by his or her parents. Most parents would choose a school that they believe would be best suited to their child. Some would choose home schooling using the various resources that are available to them.
Not having the government involved in education may sound extreme to you, and you might be thinking, "Education is too important for the government not to be involved." But consider that the opposite may be true – that education is too important for the government to be involved. After all, our nation's Founders saw fit to incorporate the First Amendment into the U.S. Constitution. And it prohibits government from dictating one's religious beliefs, which may be the most important choice that a person has. It also prohibits government from inhibiting free speech and freedom of the press. One could easily imagine that the First Amendment could include a clause stating that, "The government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of education as determined by the child's parents." In other words, along with freedom of religion and freedom of speech and many other freedoms, there should be the freedom to educate one's children as the parents see fit.
At the same time, I do believe that there should be a law requiring that parents must educate their children, without specifying how this should be done. A child without an education is severely handicapped.
Why not leave it at that, just as religion is left to each person's discretion?
There is one major difference between freedom of religion or speech on one hand, and freedom of education on the other: education costs money. And I'd hate to see a child not get an education because his or her parents don't have the money to provide one.
And what is the best way to provide that money, if parents are in need of it?
Government would provide the money to give a good education to all children.
It would be easier to define the role of government in education if the definition of the term "public education" was made explicit. It actually has two distinct meanings, and it's important to distinguish between them.
The first meaning is that the education of our children is subsidized by the government.
The second meaning is that the government runs public schools. This means that it decides what to teach, what books to use, etc. Thus "government-subsidized education" and "government-run education" are distinct functions and should be treated as such, even though the term "public education" confusingly refers to both of these functions.
To keep the education of a child under their parents' control as much as possible, I would take 10% of the federal Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure of the value of all the goods and services that the U.S. produces in a year. So it's essentially a measure of national income. For 2009, the GDP was roughly $14 trillion, that is to say $14,000 billion. I'd like to see 10% of this spent on government-subsidized education, which would be $1.4 trillion per year (and then adjusted each year based upon the GDP). It's not easy to come up with exact figures, but this comes out to over $10,000 per child per year. And it includes children age 0 to 17.
Did you say children from ages 0 to 17?
Yes! The ages from 0 to 3 are the most important in a child's life, and these subsidies would allow many more mothers to be involved full-time with their child's education at this crucial time. And the ages from 4 to 6 are the second most important.
How would the parents be given this money?
Parents would be given this money in the form of a voucher that could be used to educate their child as they see fit. To start, it would likely be more acceptable if the parents were limited to accredited public, private, or parochial schools, at least after age 5. Each month, parents would transfer one month's worth of these voucher credits to the school they chose. If they were unhappy with the school, they could transfer their child to another school. Also, some of this money could be used for transportation to and from a school, so that transportation costs would not be a financial issue.
Would the government have any other role in education?
Yes. Each school that accepts vouchers should be required to post statistics (in writing and on the Internet) such as standardized test scores, drop-out rates, etc., so that parents have as much information as possible about the school. The government should oversee giving standardized tests to students to ensure that test results are accurate.
To be fair, comparing students at one school to another should not just depend on test results. Obviously, students who come from well-educated families do better, on average, than those who don't. And smarter kids do better than ones who aren't as smart. One way to take such factors into account is for the standardized tests to include a short portion that measures a student's IQ. This IQ score would not be given to anyone. It would only be used to compare students between schools. For instance, a school's report might include the statement, "Fourth Grade students with IQs from 90 to 100, who were at this school for at least two years, had an average math score of 57 on the given standardized test." This would better allow parents to compare scores across schools.
Also, the government should make advisors available to assist parents in picking a school for their child.
Why not just keep the system as it is now?
Right now, parents who are well off can live in a neighborhood that has good public schools, or they can send their child to the private or parochial school of their choice. So they already have school choice. The plan I've outlined here gives children of parents who are not as well off the same educational choices as well-off parents.
Will this program improve education?
We know from history that all products and services get better, on average, when people have a free choice as to which products and services to choose from. Monopolies tend not to improve as much. For instance, every communist country, in which the government runs all businesses, has been poor.
For poor people and much of the middle class, financial constraints virtually force them into putting their child in the local public school, whether or not they desire to do so. Now they would have a choice, and schools that are not good will not get enough money to survive. Likewise, these pressures will force schools to get rid of bad teachers and to better compensate good ones.
Furthermore, in areas where school choice is provided to poor parents, studies have shown that the public schools also improve. This is because they are trying to retain as many students as they can, or to win back former students.
What other advantages are there to this system?
All parents' values differ, and since they are responsible for their child's education, it should be up to them to pick a school that is in alignment with their values. This is impossible without school choice.
There is much discord created by having the various boards of education deciding which books a school will use, and how the children in the school will be taught. Additionally, more discord is created with respect to things like school prayer, sex education, religious and secular displays, and more. And the courts have been involved in a number of such decisions, even to the point where a court defined what "science" was. If parents choose their child's school, these problems mostly disappear. Just as it is impossible for government (or any group) to come up with the best religion, it is also impossible for the government (or any group) to come up with the best way to educate a child. Children differ in many ways, and allowing all parents school choice honors those differences.
Any other advantages you care to mention?
Now that you ask, there are some very important ones, only some of which I'll mention here. As alluded to above, it is impossible for a public school today to cater most of its parents' desires for their children. After all, the purpose of life is to grow toward God. A public school by law cannot teach anything about this (nor would it be possible to do so, given the various beliefs of the parents).
Probably the most important teachings of Christ are that a) we are to love God and love others (even our enemies), b) treat others as we would like to be treated, c) to use our talents to help make the world a better place, and d) that we reap what we sow. All of education should be incorporate these principles.
For instance, in discussing how to create a good corporation, it should be taught that a good corporation must create a product or service that is of positive value toward its customers. It should also be taught that its employees are to be treated as children of God, and rewarded according to their contributions to the company. In the long run, these are the only companies that will succeed.
What is something ridiculous that we barely think about these days with respect to the education of our children?
Many schools require their students to read "Grapes of Wrath", "Catcher in the Rye", "The Scarlet Letter" and many others. So let me ask you this: what book is at the top of the best seller list, year after year? It is "The Holy Bible." It's the only book has sold over 1 billion copies. Estimates vary from 2.5 billion to over 6 billion copies sold. Is it not ridiculous that most children are not required to read it in school, or even worse, that they are forbidden to be taught about it? Again, it is not the fault of public schools since they must cater to all religions or no religion at all. There is not a realistic or reasonable way to teach the Bible in public schools. But it is not problem to do so in a private school. So parents can choose a school that teaches the Bible if they wish. And if parents who don't want their children to read it they can pick a school that doesn't teach the Bible.
What else would you like to see?
I'd certainly like parents who home school their children to be able to use this money as well. Studies about home-schooled children have shown them to be better in many ways compared to children educated in public schools. I do not mean this to be disrespectful of public schools because it is not really a fair comparison. Parents who home-school their children also tend to be more educated than parents who don't, on average. But my point is that home-schooling can provide children with an excellent education.
Parents who choose this option should also be required to have their children take the standardized tests along with all other children, so that parents who are not educating their children well at home can be dealt with.
Will this system guarantee that all children get a good education?
No. Some parents will misuse this money, and will find ways to direct it to non-educational purposes, or will choose a poor school. But this always occurs in any system, even a system that maximizes freedom.
Some people buy bad cars. But in a free market, cars and everything else will tend to get better. And I would expect educational innovation to soar after a few years of school choice.
As an aside, are there other subsidies that you'd like the government to provide?
Yes. Until our civilization advances enough, I believe that government should subsidize health care. My plan for this is given in a post about health care.
Additionally, I've previously described a Natural Resource Dividend. This is an amount of money that would be given each month to every American adult, to compensate for others' use of our common natural resources. For more details, see my post on the Natural Resource Tax.
The educational subsidy and the health-care subsidy would be the only subsidies that I would have the government provide. These, in addition to the Natural Resource Dividend, (which is technically not a subsidy, but acts like one) are the only ones I would have government provide. These would be sufficient to ensure that all have a reasonable and equal economic base.
Note also a very important point: every American would be given the same amount of money for each of these subsidies. This will save money by reducing the bureaucracy involved, and will satisfy the "general welfare" clause of the Constitution as well as the 14th Amendment, which are both meant to have laws apply equally to all citizens. (This would not stop the government from encouraging those who are well off to voluntarily refuse these subsidies in order to reduce the tax load).
Finally, even though this is not related to government, in addition to the above, I believe that all should tithe to an organization(s) that they believe are doing God's work – meaning organizations that they are helping to improve humanity.
In any area, the more free choices a person has for any product or service, the more those products and services tend to improve. Compare any product or service from 50 to 100 years ago, and you'll see that this is so.
Opening up education so that all parents have a choice as to how to educate their children, not just the well-off parents, is bound to improve educational innovation and practices, so that all children benefit. And then our world will benefit as well.
What can be more American than this? And what can be less American than not allowing this?
Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.