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Friday, April 17, 2009

Education, Choice, and Change

I've recently been enjoying the barrage of articles over at Cato on the recent death (or murder) of the D.C. voucher program (see here for Cato articles on education, most of the recent of which deal with the voucher scandal). If you're unfamiliar with this situation in particular or education vouchers in general, allow me to explain: In Washington, D.C. they've had a voucher program. This basically allows students to take tax money that would have been spent educating them in public schools and spend it in private schools. Thus poor students who can't afford to choose private schools otherwise can afford it by using the tax money that would have been spent on their public education. Research has shown that the voucher program in DC has produced better results for less money spent per pupil. Yet, the DC voucher program has been killed, and before it was killed, the research demonstrating its effectiveness was conveniently kept quiet. This is outrageous. What is most outrageous is the excuse given. As Neal McCluskey at Cato points out, killing the voucher program is done in the same name every Obama administration policy is: change. The reality, as McCluskey points out, is that the voucher program in fact challenges everything about the status quo. Vouchers seek the good of the consumer, not of entrenched interests like teachers unions. It is killing the voucher program that is a blind acceptance of the status quo!

This fact, it seems to me, is rather obvious. As far as I am concerned it does not matter whether or not Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education around whom all the controversy has swirled, intentionally hid the study showing the effectiveness of the voucher program. This study only confirms a rather simple intuitive notion: stifling free thinking by uniformity is bad for education. This is a simple fact people have recognized for ages. I was struck today by the simplicity of this fact when reading "Education, Help or Hindrance" by Auberon Herbert. Herbert, an Englishman writing nearly 130 years ago, recognized a simple fact that Obama, Duncan, and the like cannot seem to grasp:
Therefore, if you desire progress, you must not make it difficult for men to think and act differently; you must not dull their senses with routine or stamp their imagination with the official pattern of some great department. If you desire progress, you must remove all obstacles that impede for each man the exercise of his reasoning and imaginative faculties in his own way; and you must do nothing to lessen the rewards which he expects in return for his exertions. And in what does this reward consist? Often in the simple triumph of the truth of some opinion. It is marvelous how much toil men will undergo for the sake of their ideas; how cheerfully they will devote life, strength, and enjoyment to the work of convincing others of the existence of some fact or the truth of some view. But if such forces are to be placed at the service of society, it must be on the condition that society should not throw artificial and almost insuperable obstacles in the way of those reformers who search for better methods. If, for example, a man holding new views about education can at once address himself to those in sympathy with him, can at once collect funds and proceed to try his experiment, he sees his goal in front of him, and labors in the expectation of obtaining some practical result to his labor. But if some great official system blocks the way, if he has to overcome the stolid resistance of a department, to persuade a political party, which has no sympathy with views holding out no promise of political advantage, to satisfy inspectors, whose eyes are trained to see perfection of only one kind, and who may summarily condemn his school as “inefficient,” and therefore disallowed by law, if in the meantime he is obliged by rates and taxes to support a system to which he is opposed, it becomes unlikely that his energy and confidence in his own views will be sufficient to inspire a successful resistance to such obstacles.

The simple fact of the matter is that a lack of school choice encourages stagnation. How can a system without competition, without conflict ever produce new fresh ideas? Herbert recognized this in his own time, and the English system he describes sounds eerily like our own:
Add one more consideration. A great department must be by the law of its own condition unfavorable to new ideas. To make a change it must make a revolution. Our Education Department, for example, cannot issue an edict which applies to certain school boards and not to others. It knows and can know of no exceptions. Our bastard system of half-central half-local government is contrived with great ingenuity to render all such experiments impossible. If the center were completely autocratic (which Heaven forbid) it could try experiments as it chose; if the localities were independent, each could act for itself. At present our arrangements permit of only intolerable uniformity.

Could there be a better description of contemporary American schools? It's uncanny. A "bastard system of half-central half-local government"! If that doesn't describe our system I do not know what does! In 19th century England and 21st century America the truth is the same: the best way to improve education is to allow alternative models to compete. And the reality is, as Herbert recognized long ago, different approaches cannot compete effectively when they are competing before bureaucrats. The best arbiter of competing ideas about education is not a bunch of Washington bureaucrats who fail or refuse to read their own department's studies on the effectiveness of school choice; it is the consumer of education: the parents.


  1. The Friedman Foundation has done great work in this area, and documents definitive proof that vouchers work:

    It's absolutely hideous that the Dems are killing this program strictly to pay off a political constituency.

  2. Josh, thanks for directing us all to the Friedman Foundation. They look like they're on the ball.

    It is indeed sad that the politicians are so whipped by the interested groups. That's what happens when politics and education mix: politics wins.