When Public Schools Fail, Regulators Succeed

When it comes to any number of services and products I purchase on a regular basis from local businesses—groceries, insurance, auto repairs, restaurant meals, clothing, etc.—I have a pretty clear recourse if I’m an unhappy customer: take my business elsewhere.  It is a direct and effective method for ensuring quality products and services—and one of the simple wonders of competitive capitalism.  Any business that cannot do a good job at a fair price will no longer enjoy my patronage.

That’s the end of the story, unless, of course, there is only one grocery store, restaurant, or insurance agency—that is, additionally, operated as an government agency supported with taxpayer dollars dispensed by complex bureaucracies whose existence is dependent on denying choice to the taxpayers who supply their paychecks.  In these cases we are introduced to that peculiar species of government employees, the ones who spend their careers writing regulations and revisions in the hope that a large enough book of rules will ensure positive outcomes.

Please understand I am all for regulations meant to ensure our health and safety that are not premised on restricting my choice of services and products to but one.  I would be more than a little concerned taking over-the-counter medications not checked by the FDA, flipping on a light switch if there was no electrical code, or driving over a bridge that was not regularly inspected.

However, it is a simple truism that government monopolies have a tendency to accrue regulations in direct proportion to their lack of results—and this is sadly more and more the case with our public schools.  If you ever have a few free days, you might want to attempt to read the entire Illinois School Code.  A good portion of it is available through the Illinois State Board of Education website, and it is peculiar bureaucratic testament to best intentions—best intentions that, sadly, fail to recognize the core problem of our current system of taxpayer-funded education.

If parents have to rely on sagging bookshelves of regulations to ensure their children’s futures because public schools are by statute the sole fiduciaries of our tax dollars devoted to education, all you will be able to count on is that more regulations will be written to “solve” the problems of our failing public schools.  No matter how you look at it, the basic problem is one of lack of options for parents who are dissatisfied with their child’s education, and even the charter school law fails to address the underlying issue because for it allows, for example, a failing local public school the right to deny permission for a more academically rigorous charter school to operate within their district boundaries—welcome to the Kafkaesque world of public education reform.

Of course, if you are fortunate enough to be able to live within the school district boundaries of one of our nation’s pricier suburbs, you’re likely wondering what all the fuss concerning achievement is about; your schools have been blowing past the minimum standards for years, and your high school graduates are off to the finest colleges and universities in the nation.

However, if you live in a community less blessed and are counting on your local public schools to take your tax dollars and level the playing field for your child while you are working two jobs to put food on the table, you should probably be more than a little frustrated that your only option should you need to provide a better education for your child is to somehow pay for private school above and beyond the tax dollars you and every other person and business already pay.  It’s just a little wacky when you stop to think about it.  We can go to the market and scan an entire snack aisle of salty treats to find just the right cheesy chip for any occasion, but each child’s choice for a taxpayer supported school is—by law—limited to just one highly regulated and all too often unsuccessful option.

It is likely that public school administrators will complain that chaos that will surely result from allowing parents to take their per-pupil tax dollars and spend them on private sector educational alternatives.  How can we plan properly if we don’t have a captive market, they will ask?  Of course, many much larger and more complex enterprises somehow stay afloat without a legislative decree mandating that customers patronize only their businesses; we also seem to survive market-based approaches to a huge variety of governmental and private endeavors.  Why continue to insist that public schools alone should be exempt from the consequences of continuing failure?  Allowing parents to make choices with their federal, state, and local tax dollars for their children likely could not result in a system worse than the current one that—as a recent College Board report notes—is busy creating a generation of children less well educated than their parents.

Perhaps we can now recognize that the time for committees devoted to further study of the problem of improving public education is long past—and the time to loudly insist on a complete paradigm shift for delivering quality education to our children must start now.  Otherwise, we can continue to wave goodbye to a competitive marketplace of educated countries and their citizens who are surpassing too many of our students on a daily basis and leaving our nation’s institutions and economy at grave and growing risk.

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