I distinctly remember the conversation I had with economist Paul Cleveland when I was developing the curriculum for Economics for Everybody:
I asked, “What economic policy should I start with to demonstrate how the government interferes with our economy? Monetary policy? Fiscal policy?”
“Education,” he said. “Start with the economic policy that matters most. It takes up approximately 15% of our nation’s financial resources and is the perfect example of what happens when the government intervenes in a sector of the economy. It continually spends more and more money, centralizes more and more programs, and yet gets ever-diminishing results.”
He was right. Public education is the fount of most problems in the United States, not simply based on content, but also on structure. Simply put: it is economically impossible for American public education to be successful in the long-run (or the short-run, for that matter). Albert Shanker, former President of the American Federation of Teachers, explains why:
It is time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy. It’s a bureaucratic system where everybody’s role is spelled out in advance, and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s not a surprise when a school system doesn’t improve. It more resembles a Communist economy than our own market economy. - Wall Street Journal, Oct 2, 1989
As an aside, this is why the new Common Core standards are doomed to be a massive failure in terms of educational achievement and public expenditure. If, however, you look at is as a shift toward greater educational centralization as well as an enormous monetary input to educational bureaucrats and textbook companies, it will be a grand success. Stock principle: one man’s loss is another man’s gain.
In order to demonstrate this, let’s compare the so-called communist economy of public education to the free market economy of home education. If anyone in the public educational sphere is listening, there are some important lessons to be learned which, if implemented, could begin reforming our public education sector into something that becomes better over time and actually educates students, as opposed to the deliberate dumbing down of the populace over the past century (note that this is a statistical and observable fact, not an assertion – and the link takes you to a free ebook documenting it).
Lesson 1: Decentralization is the means to educational success.
This is obvious to the homeschooling mother of multiple children who knows that Child 1 may do great with one math curriculum, but Child 2 needs a curriculum that takes a slower approach, while Child 3 is doing algebra at 8. This sort of specialization requires a bit of thinking on a homeschool mother’s part, but is systemically impossible in our current public schools. This is why large classes have a tendency to drift down to the lowest common denominator: in this case, it would be using a curriculum for Child 2 (or, perhaps, the next door neighbor’s kid, who can barely do multiplication…).
This is also why Common Core is such an educationally stupid idea. (stu-pid: adj., lacking intelligence or common sense.) Anyone who has taught in a classroom (and I actually have, to multiple grade levels and nationalities at one time), knows that greater centralization leads to greater ignorance because it is the reverse of individualization. If our States could not figure this out on their own in order “to be competitive” (which they clearly have not – whatever that really means), then the Federal government fundamentally cannot.
Instead of getting more centralized, educational and curricular control should be pushed down to the lowest possible level (the school and the teacher herself, with significant parental control). This would require booting out the unions (that efficient perpetuator of educational mediocrity), breaking our huge schools apart and creating a whole new market-based model of education, where size/content matches local market needs, curriculum and methods are in the hands of parents/teachers, etc. It would also require public schools to compete with each other for students (who would likely use vouchers – although when I say this, it is a concession to a faulty principle, since vouchers are just another form of redistribution of wealth, albeit far superior to the current setup.)
What is my proof for this? Consider one fact: there are hundreds of thousands mothers who have no educational degrees, no educational backgrounds, and almost no educational experience, who spend far less time educating their children than their public school counterparts, yet their kids consistently outperform the vast majority of public school students in the nation year after year.
Coincidence? Accident? There are a lot of politicians and bureaucrats who want people to believe it – but more and more Americans are getting wise that centralization is a disaster for education in every possible way, and they’re moving into homeschooling seven times faster than into public schooling. Let’ face it: if children are parents’ greatest assets, why would they put them in a bank that is basically insolvent and historically has demonstrated negative returns year after year?
Lesson 2: Market-based education is the only way to meet decentralized educational needs.
If every child is unique, how do you meet all those endless educational needs? With an endlessly adjusting free market. And if you want see a real, live free market in action, just go to a homeschool convention. On one side you have entrepreneurs who have managed the factors of production with no government involvement or subsidies in order to create an incredibly wide and ever-growing supply of high-quality educational materials. These materials are constantly adjusting to the demand of the market (which, by the way, consists primarily of middle-class women aged 30-55, whom everyone knows are an exceptionally shrewd, bargain-hunting, product-researching populace – in other words, the best kind of partner to a free market.)
Want to know more about those buyers? Here’s what’s fascinating: 88% of homeschooling families are supported by one income, and 50% of homeschooling families make $35-75k per annum. When you subtract food, clothes, mortgage, gas, etc., then add in the pernicious effects of Fed-sponsored, unreported inflation of approximately 10%, you get a very small sum to spend on educational materials.
What does that look like? 60% spend $500 or less per child; another 30% spend $1000 or less. (Source: HEDUA) Let me remind you that the vast majority of homeschool families receive nary a dime from the government; and most would not take it if it was offered. (Rather, just getting a credit back for the taxes paid annually would be sufficient, but that is another story..)
As a point of comparison, what is the national average spent on a public school student? $10,560 in 2011. Again, to put an economic perspective on this, public school kids are getting 2000% more money thrown at them, yet their results are at least 100% inferior to their homeschooled counterparts. When you realize that a good chunk of this money comes from property taxes you are paying each month, it makes government waste feel very personal. After all, if you are homeschooling your kids, it’s likely you could be paying for many of your children’s books if that money was just given back to you.
Of course, what I really love to hear is the cry that public schools need more funding, or that public schools need better curriculum, or that public schools need more funding (wait, is there an echo in here?) I would surmise that most public school students – who clearly are getting the raw end of a socialist educational deal – would ask after hearing how much money is spent on them each year with so few of them really learning anything: ‘what’s up with this?’
Here’s what’s up: socialism in all its beauty. Remember the long lines and bare shelves in communist stores from USSR days? This is synonymous with the big classes and bare minds in our current school system. Yes, some kids here and there are being partially educated, but not compared to 75, 100 or even 200 years ago. (Quick question: who was better educated, a 19th-century kid or 21st-century kid? One sat for hours listening to the Lincoln-Douglas debates; the other sits for hours listening to Lady Gaga.)
That said, it wasn’t like everyone in the USSR starved – they just had no freedom of choice. Is it surprising, then, that in our public schools, there is no freedom of curriculum choice, no freedom of school choice, no freedom of teacher choice, no freedom of parental involvement. What is there instead?
Lots of propaganda about how administrators are doing the best they can with the poor funding and bad facilities and uninvolved parents, etc. etc. etc. Then there’s a good bit about how it’s important to support the local community, be a team player, etc. etc. etc. It seems rather reminiscent of the propaganda coming out of the former USSR when people didn’t have enough food to take home. Who was to blame? Those blasted free market capitalists! (Oops – I used the ‘c’-word, which is persona non grata in non-Latin teaching schools.)
Caveat lector: Is it surprising to anyone that our modern school system, elementary to collegiate, is so anti-free market? The educational politburo’s days would be numbered if the kids and parents realized what the game was really about, and understanding free market economics is just too eye-opening. ‘Study Keynesian economics instead. Oh, you can’t make heads or tails of it – good, keep trying! You’re on the right path.’ This is why Keynes is taught instead of Adam Smith (or von Mises, for that matter). Few people realize how freeing it is to learn free market economic principles: it not only reveals that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, but that he’s a peasant impostor to boot.
Lesson 3: Free markets and educational systems work best in the context of a Biblical worldview.
A Chinese economist came to the United States and wrote an incisive analysis of why our country has been so economically successful for so many centuries. What was his answer? Churches. Like de Tocqueville, Zhao Xiao provides a foreigner’s unique perspective on what is so vitally important to our nation:
The market economy has an instinctive need for some kind of matching market ethics before its true force can come into play…. From the perspective of human society, the most successful model is church + market economy. That is to say, the happy combination of a market economy that discourages idleness together with a strong faith (ethics) that discourages dishonesty and injury.
One of the 20th-century’s great contributions to education was its rejection of God and the resulting breakdown of knowledge. In other words, if God isn’t the foundation of knowledge, then there isn’t one. (Man would like to believe he is the foundation, but he has a tendency to die.) Yeats put it well when he observed of this century, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
This could be one of the most succinct descriptions of the last century’s educational endeavor. Without God at the center, there’s nothing to hold things together and give them universal meaning. Everything devolves to unrelated particulars, which would pretty much describe every university’s smorgasbord of classes, many of which are used to teach the teachers that fill the pulpits of public school classrooms today. No truth, no reason, no morals. Instead there is viewpoint, critique, and values.
In public schools, Christianity has been forcefully replaced with the religion of Darwinism, the mantra of relativism, and the cult of sex (none of which do any favors for students’ self-esteem, much less their academic motivation). If there’s not a God who created everything and wants students to know and obey Him, then everything is pretty much up for grabs. A secular worldview ends up crashing in on itself in a conflagration of meaninglessness.
This is where homeschool economics really demonstrates its superiority: the majority of homeschoolers are working and thinking within a Biblical worldview, even if rudimentary. This provides a structure of reason and ethics which feeds into the overall philosophy of education. Even if children are being secularly educated at home, their parents are in control of it, which is ultimately part of the Biblical worldview (see Deuteronomy 6).
If most people today are horrified at the stories emerging from public school classrooms about elementary sex, weird drugs, and teenage self-violence, I can promise you one thing: there is a commandment somewhere against it. Furthermore, there is a long history of literature and culture that says these actions are not only wrong, but extremely bad for you (which, by the way, is why they are wrong – God doesn’t like His children hurting themselves).
Public schools don’t seem to realize that there is a continuum between knowing God, pursuing morality and possessing understanding. That’s why Solomon tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Is it any wonder that those institutions which ignore and malign God end up producing generally unwise (and uneducated) people?
Let’s see: when did the universities really start pushing against God? In the 1960′s/70′s – or the Baby Boomer generation. Who’s been in control of the economy for the past two decades? The Baby Boomer generation. Although this is purely anecdotal, the free market economy is generally tanking with the wholesale destruction of the middle class via taxes, regulations, and entitlements foisted on us by the Boomers. Who’s going to lose out? Their children who can’t get a job – and who were spoon-fed Darwinism, relativism, and sex from a very young age from the public schools all across our nation.
But enough on all this – the three lessons are there for anyone to agree (or disagree) with. I will leave you with our brief analysis of economic interventionism and its effects on education from Lesson 8 of our series Economics for Everybody. I certainly don’t expect many people to read this, much less agree with it – but I felt the need to state what seems obvious so that at least it wasn’t weighing on my conscience. For all of us who are paying for public education, caveat emptor.
(BTW – if you’d like to get a start on that free market education mentioned above, you and your kids should buy the full set of Economics for Everybody. It’s the only video series I know about that explains how Christianity relates to economics. Taught by the wonderful RC Sproul Jr and filled with old films and cartoons, its makes economics lots of fun to learn.)