OK, cue the marching music. We need public schools because blah blah blah and yada yada yada. We could say blah is common culture and yada is the government's interest in promoting the general welfare. Or that children are the future. And a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Because we can't leave any child behind.
Consider Washington, home of the nation's most devoted government-lovers and, ironically, the city with arguably the worst public schools in the country. Out of the 100 largest school districts, according to the Washington Post, D.C. ranks third in spending for each pupil — $12,979 — but last in spending on instruction. Fifty-six cents out of every dollar goes to administrators who, it's no secret, do a miserable job administrating, even though D.C. schools have been in a state of "reform" for nearly 40 years.
In a blistering series, the Post has documented how badly the bureaucrats have run public education. More than half of the District of Columbia's kids spend their days in "persistently dangerous" schools, with an average of nine violent incidents a day in a system with 135 schools. "Principals reporting dangerous conditions or urgently needed repairs in their buildings wait, on average, 379 days for the problems to be fixed," according to the Post. But hey, at least the kids are getting a lousy education. A mere 19 schools managed to get "proficient" scores or better for a majority of students on the district's Comprehensive Assessment Test.
A standard response to such criticisms is to say we don't spend enough on public education. But if money were the solution, wouldn't the district, which spends nearly $13,000 on every kid, rank near the top? If you think more money will fix the schools, make your checks out to "cash" and send them to me.
Private, parochial and charter schools get better results. Parents know this. Applications for vouchers in the district dwarf the available supply, and home schooling has exploded.
As for schools teaching kids about the common culture and all that, as a conservative I couldn't agree more. But is there evidence that public schools are better at it? According to the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress history and civics exams, two-thirds of U.S. high school seniors couldn't identify the significance of a photo of a theater with a sign reading "Colored Entrance." And keep in mind, political correctness pretty much guarantees that Jim Crow and the civil rights movement are included in syllabi. Imagine how few kids can intelligently discuss Manifest Destiny or free silver.
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Right now, there's a renewed debate about providing "universal" health insurance. For some liberals, this simply means replicating the public school model for healthcare. (Stop laughing.) But for others, this means mandating that everyone have health insurance — just as we mandate that all drivers have car insurance — and then throwing tax dollars at poorer folks to make sure no one falls through the cracks.
There's a consensus in America that every child should get an education, but as David Gelernter noted recently in the Weekly Standard, there's no such consensus that public schools need to do the educating.
Really, what would be so terrible about government mandating that every kid has to go to school, and providing subsidies and oversight when necessary, but then getting out of the way?
Milton Friedman noted long ago that the government is bad at providing services — that's why he wanted public schools to be called "government schools" — but that it's good at writing checks. So why not cut checks to people so they can send their kids to school?
What about the good public schools? Well, the reason good public schools are good has nothing to do with government's special expertise and everything to do with the fact that parents care enough to ensure their kids get a good education. That wouldn't change if the government got out of the school business. What would change is that fewer kids would get left behind.