Saturday, July 23, 2016

Are public schools like Soviet-era department stores?

Some in the public education community are displeased with the comment this week by Donald Trump, Jr. (courtesy of his speechwriter F.H. Buckley) that public schools are "like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers."

But Mr. Trump is hardly the first person to make this sort of observation. Milton Friedman once described America’s public school system as “an island of socialism in a free-market sea.” Kevin Williamson, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, says “the public schools constitute one of the most popular instantiations of socialism in American life.” Indeed, he says, “in the United States, we have an education system that already is socialized to a greater extent than Lenin managed for Soviet agriculture.”

And it’s not just free-market economists and authors. Twenty-seven years ago today, American Federation for Teachers president Albert Shanker issued this wake-up call:
It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy. … 
We’ve been running our schools as planned economies for so long that the notion of using incentives to drive schools to change may strike some people as too radical—even though that’s the way we do it in every other sector of society. But no law of nature says public schools have to be run like state-owned factories or bureaucracies. If the Soviet Union can begin to accept the importance of incentives to productivity, it is time for people in public education to do the same.
Many schools are failing to provide a quality education for at least some of their students and Oklahomans want alternatives. But as Williamson points out, “the public schools are not a random or inexplicable failure. They are a classical socialist failure, with massively misallocated resources, an ensconced bureaucratic class, and a needlessly impoverished client class.”

Defenders of the status quo can shriek at the mention of socialism and recommend business as usual (more taxes and spending, no reform). But it might be wiser to listen to constructive criticism and take it to heart. For as Mr. Shanker himself said, “business as usual in the public education system is going to put us out of business.”

[Cross-posted at OCPA]

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