Monday, May 14, 2007

Free Market Education Solutions - Literally

US News & World Report showed us an interesting perspective on education reform in their April 29th edition.

For Trinity Gardens, a poor neighborhood in Mobile County, Ala., that sends children to Brazier Elementary, the neglect wasn't a huge surprise. In 1965, a nearby Air Force base closed-taking away 10,000 jobs-and a series of paper mills shut down in the 1990s, stealing at least 3,000 more. Most of the Gardens' residents live below the poverty line, holding two jobs to get by. Who had time to care how many fifth graders passed a state writing test? (In 2003, only 7 percent.)

But in 2004, Brazier Elementary suddenly began to change. In just one year, workers cleaned up the halls, new teachers poured in, and test scores shot up. Noting the change, parents like Patrick sent their kids back to Brazier. Patrick thanks Brazier's new principal, Merrier Jackson, for the turnaround, calling her "a godsend." But it was actually a less heavenly group that sent Jackson to Trinity Gardens: CEOs.

Four times a year, Everage Thomas, a supervisor at the nearby Budweiser Busch Distributing Co., squeezes into the school's miniature plastic chairs for a meeting with Principal Jackson on student performance. Budweiser has invested capital in her school, and it wants to see results. So Jackson, a former businesswoman, brings PowerPoint presentations, graphs, and charts to prove her students are learning. She calls Budweiser a "stakeholder." That terminology fits a district-ordered reorganization three years ago intended to use a business mind-set (and accountability) to improve Mobile's worst-performing schools. The overhaul followed a reform campaign bankrolled in part by local business groups and the Chamber of Commerce.

It's the same quintessential principle behind school choice: incentive. The government has little accountability and incentive contained with it's quasi autonomous functions. The infamy of bureaucratic blunders lies, at least partially, in the government's inability to innovate and conquer. Businesses, on the other hand, have a direct stake in their performance. All income is contingent on performance. That same risk assesment in decisions can be applied to many realms. The private sector, or at least, government programs that offer private contracts, or private entities supported by government, consistently outperform pure-governmental functioning. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is noted for low-quality and rapidly deteriorating housing that can't compete with private offerings to low-income families needing shelter (e.g. Habitat for Humanity).

Objections in the article come from sources like John Dewey, who lamented:

Education would then become an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society... Who, then, shall conduct education so that humanity may improve?"

Because the industrious spirit of private enterprise considers only the short term, and perpetuates its own ignorance, while state glorifies mankind and innovates beyond the individual citizen's wildest expectations? The precedent itself cries out in agony.

Why can't private innovation be applied to education? Why, after every hour of Milton Friedman's explanations, do only a handful of states offer realistic school choice? Why do the John Deweys of the world still see government as the panacea? Perhaps Brazier Elementary will pose these questions yet again.

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