Why Schools Don't Deliver
December 1, 2016
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
By Greg Forster
I don’t often get great new insights when I read the work of Oklahoma edu-blogger Rob Miller. But I did have an epiphany of sorts when I recently read an article of his arguing that public schools underperform for the same reason the post office does—because meddling politicians are in charge.
To my mind, this argument reveals the real cause of America’s long-term inability to set any kind of serious education policy: half the people who shape that policy are living on a different continent.
In the article, which appeared last year, Miller points out that the real problem with the post office is not the post office. It’s the politicians who own the place and constantly meddle with it, preventing it from fixing old problems and imposing new ones. For example:
When they try to shut down costly, inefficient little post offices in remote rural townships, some local congressperson will inevitably rise up in indignation and talk about saving jobs and their “community’s identity.”
If you want to know why the post office provides lousy service and still loses billions, that’s one of the main reasons.
Miller’s reverie on the travails of the post office is, of course, aimed at making a point about education. He argues that public schools are like the post office. They’re not to blame for their problems; they answer to the same reprobate politicians who torment their postal cousins. Their motto is “neither the bureaucrats nor the corporate cronies nor the oppressive regulations nor the constant disparagement will stay us from the effective completion of our appointed rounds.”
One part of Miller’s comparison between public schools and the post office goes badly wrong. He erroneously claims that public schools, like the post office, deliver for all people. Just as the post office has to get mail to and from every distant rural address, public schools have to educate all the “difficult” students that Miller imagines the private schools don’t want to serve.
In fact, more than 100,000 students a year are kicked out of public schools. Almost 100,000 more have disabilities public schools can’t accommodate. Admittedly that’s a small percentage of the total student population—but then, rural postal addresses are a small percentage of all postal addresses. The small size of the population is part of the point here. Miller is just wrong that public schools serve the hardest students.
Who educates these students after they’re turned away from public schools? Private schools. Because private schools are almost always more eager to serve difficult students than public schools are.
That aside, however, Miller is absolutely right about his main point. The post office stinks, not because its managers and employees are all stupid and evil, but because Congress runs it. The obvious and only possible solution is to take it away from Congress, i.e., privatize.
That’s what a lot of other countries have done. Financial columnist Rick Newman reported in 2013 that 25 of the 27 European Union countries had at least some private mail delivery. Because why on earth would you want government to monopolize mail service? It makes no kind of sense.
That’s not all. “No other country would tolerate a state-owned enterprise losing billions of dollars per year,” comments Richard Geddes, a professor in the Cornell University Department of Policy Analysis and Management, in Newman’s column. “The postal service would have been reformed a decade ago if we were any other country.”
But we aren’t any other country. We’re the United States, where boondoggles—like all those post offices in tiny towns—live forever.
Our national political tradition is not as socialistic as that of most advanced economies. But our greater commitment to freedom and diversity causes us to have lower levels of social cohesion and homogeneity. This makes it much harder to hold the growing technocratic state accountable to a firm set of public moral principles. European and Asian technocracy tends to be more authoritarian than ours, but also (in free countries) more honest, transparent, and efficient.
The EU has imposed rules regulating the permissible curvature of bananas and forbidding product labels from informing consumers that drinking water prevents dehydration. But they don’t let their state-owned enterprises just toss billions a year into the furnace, year after year for decades. If you want that kind of waste, you have to buy American. (At least we get curvy bananas to make up for it.)
And that’s the problem with our education policymaking. Half our policy class wants the kind of clean, transparent, and minutely regulated public ownership that prevails, more or less, in Europe. If our government doesn’t in fact operate that way, this is surprising, abnormal, something we have a right to expect will not happen.
But we are not in Europe. This free, boisterous, and diverse nation simply cannot get away with the levels of central ownership and control that the more homogeneous and culturally traditionalist European nations have managed to sustain. Our politics was designed from the beginning to accommodate a clamorous cacophony of interest groups, forming coalitions and jostling for position. It doesn’t run on consensus, and a clean social-democratic state doesn’t run any other way.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Europe would be better off with less central ownership and hyper-minute regulation. In my book, giving people stewardship over their own lives and allowing them the freedom to serve each other through their daily work and exchange is worth risking the occasional improperly curved banana in the grocery store any day of the week.
My point isn’t to ask whether social-democratic government ownership of service providers like post offices and schools is wise. It isn’t, but let’s set that aside. The question is whether it’s possible to have it without an intolerable degree of waste and political meddling. The answer seems to be that it’s possible in Europe, but not here.
Or perhaps I should say, it has been possible in Europe up to now. For Europe itself is facing a crisis of social-democratic public services even more acute than our own. Declining native populations, and large flows of immigration with low-to-no cultural assimilation, are rapidly undermining the European model.
As globalism and pluralism create increasing pressures on older models of social order, I’m placing my bets on the American experiment in freedom and diversity—yes, even in 2016. But you can’t eat your cake and have it, too. If we want a free and diverse country, we need an education system suitable for that kind of country. School choice would move us in that direction.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness. He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.