What nobody will admit about our public schools

If you ask the typical representative of the State Board of Education or government bureaucrat at the State of Office of Education why educational achievement is not what everyone expects, you will receive one of two answers: (1) public schools don’t have enough money or (2) parents abdicate their responsibilities to schools and the schools are overburdened.

Of course, when it’s explained to them (not that they don’t know this already) that the vast majority of the Utah state budget goes to education, they defer to answer No. 2. Interestingly, in my experience anyway, when it’s suggested that the Legislature enact new policies to empower parents to control the education of their children, these state education officials immediately object because, of course, they (not parents) are the education experts.

In a system meant to serve the common good, one would imagine that parents, educators, legislators and government employees (i.e., the entire public school system) would try to work together more, not less, when important issues arise concerning the well-being of children.

State board and state office officials blame the state Legislature. The state Legislature blames those officials. Parents blame both and are very reluctant to blame themselves for any underachieving from students.

All of these sentiments can be found in departing State Superintendent Larry Shumway’s recent remarks on the State of Education (2012) to the State Board of Education. He says pithy things like, “We cannot have the best school system in the country and be the lowest in the country in funding. We can’t be first if we are always last,” even though he, like his colleagues, knows that more money (even if it were fiscally reasonable and possible to tax families even more) doesn’t make teachers teach better or students learn better.

He, like his colleagues, knows that there is only one pre-eminent factor in student achievement: parental involvement – not more money, not more teaching degrees, not bigger schools, not smaller classrooms, not anything more that the current system could provide. So why the endless harping about more money for education?

To be fair in my criticisms, it’s not just the public school community harping. Utah’s big business community is obsessed with “better education” because, evidently, kids go to school to learn how to make lots of money in life – evidently, the purpose (the “common good”) of public education is to get people jobs in economic sectors in need of more and better employees.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with an economy in need of better employees in particular sectors (that sounds healthy to me), there’s a lot wrong with thinking that the public school system exists for this exclusive purpose. There is an illogical idea at play there: a positive correlation between more tax dollars, better public education and a more-skilled workforce for Utah – almost like it’s a scientific algorithm.

The only thing that these seemingly disparate groups have in common is that both are asking for more money from taxpayers for public education.

Is there a correlation between more tax dollars going to public education and better results for students? No. None. We’re enticed to think there is because more money in anyone’s life typically makes life better. But in this case, like so many other examples we could point to, more money (more dollars per pupil) doesn’t seem to matter at all – and if you account for how that money is used (again, as in life generally), more money could actually make things worse if you’re paying more for the same substandard, entrenched and inflexible system of education.

Is there a correlation between public schools and a more-skilled workforce? No. None. We could argue that there is a negative correlation in play given that Utah’s big business community is even arguing for workers with better skills. If you’re a businessman and you hire an employment agency to provide you with skilled workers and that agency has failed you over a long period of time, what would you think if your CEO said, “We need employees with higher skills! Go back to that agency and tell them we need them to try harder… and let them know we’ll pay them even more to try again!” Of course, you’d think that CEO was a raving lunatic. But that’s exactly how Utah’s big business community is behaving in believing that Utah’s public school system, in its current form, will step up to their challenge.

Here is the real problem with Utah’s schools: Nobody will admit that our public school system is a government program.

The original (Jeffersonian) ideal of a “common good” served by public schools rightly justifies their creation. We believe that every American child should be raised with a basic skill set (knowledge being a human good) and understanding about how to achieve, or at least survive, in a free society. When familial circumstances dictate a need for outside help, the public school system is there to assist.

Trust me when I say, in all humility, that I know that what comes next sounds crazy to the public school establishment, but where we have failed is in acknowledging that public schooling is “public assistance” (a government program), meaning that “the common good” of education can be obtained in a number of different ways outside of public schooling but that public schooling is a safety net for a free society to provide a basic education to ensure, as best as possible, that Americans are encouraged to be knowledgeable and civilized. Problems arise when we view public education as any more than that – when we view it as a socioeconomic “equalizer,” or as a factory to provide workers or as an instrument of social control and human engineering, we run into deep and dark troubles.

If Utah’s big business community truly sought more highly skilled labor for specialized markets of the future, the last thing it should do is call for more investment in public schools. It should support educational innovations and academic excellence that cannot possibly occur inside a government program. Utah’s big business community of 10 years ago had it right: invest in innovation in education. Ten years ago, this same community, through a commission led by Fraser Bullock, supported vouchers and tax credits and opening up the public system permitting parents to control (and be intimately involved in) the education of their children.

But no. Entrenched government employees working for the public school system wouldn’t permit that to happen and, it seems in light of it, Utah’s big business community folded like a lawn chair under the pressure. Today, the greatest innovation Utah’s big business community is calling for is more people to read to kids in elementary school, and more preschool education (as if more of what’s killing higher standards is going to work). In other words, more of the same.

If you’ve ever heard Jim Ferrell’s (Arbinger Institute) presentation on human relations, you’d know what is going on: collusion – a dysfunctional choir of voices each blaming the other and each feeling justified in their complaints while nothing gets solved. Only now the collusion is nearly irreversibly dysfunctional. The people who seek change most (Utah’s big business community) have joined forces with the people who seek change least (government employees of Utah’s public school system).

But imagine the change for good that could take place if we simply saw things as they really are. Imagine if we saw our public school system for what it really is and what it was always intended to be (in the Jeffersonian ideal). Imagine if we accepted the reality that Utah’s public school system is a government program. At that point we would begin to see positive change.

For instance, under the current view (i.e., ignoring that our school system is a government program), no one is surprised that so many parents are dependent on public schools. We’re not surprised because government programs breed dependencies.

School officials often argue for more money on the basis that parents are asking extraordinary things of schools to help raise their children – to do many of those things that responsible and functional parents have done for centuries. But now, in an era of growing family breakdown, schools are being asked by parents to be babysitters and medical centers and policemen and, well, parents! So school officials feign being overburdened. Yes, feign.

Do you think for one minute that a government employee would ask to assume less of a role in someone’s life? Do you think for one minute that school officials would shout STOP! Do you think for one minute that they would rebuke parents for being so unnaturally and very often unnecessarily dependent on the school system to provide services to kids that have always been the first obligations of parenthood? Of course not. That’s not what government employees do, nor is it the nature of any government program. Every government program seeks to preserve itself. Whether it’s a legitimate government function such as military or law enforcement or a not-so-legitimate government function such as some perceived-but-not-actual public good (e.g., UTOPIA or a new convention center in Salt Lake City), every government program looks to grow, not shrink.

The way out of this mess and the way back to human excellence and productivity is to see public education for what it truly is at its core: a government program. In doing so we’ll restore personal responsibility and accountability to parents in a fundamental liberty interest recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States (i.e., the “education and upbringing” of their children).

For 10 years Sutherland Institute has argued for this reality.

It’s time to push this reality. I think it’s time that Utah abandon its income tax (all of which goes to public schools) and create a new education tax. We’re told incessantly by local pollsters, at the behest of the public education community, that Utahns would gladly pay more for education. OK, let’s call that bluff. Let’s see how much Utahns value the public education status quo versus alternatives that would lead to educational innovations and human excellence.

So there it is. Sutherland Institute calls for an education tax.