Thursday, November 15, 2007

Free Markets and Public Education—The Forgotten Underbelly

First off, vouchers will not and CANNOT by design benefit public schools financially. All of the arguments about vouchers literally increasing funding per student were demonstrable untruths. See my Nut and Bolts postings from the last few weeks if you still need documented proof of that statement. Unfortunately, many Utahns were and continue to be fooled by the “Oreo” argument of increased funds to “redistribute.” Others, I suspect, refuse to carefully consider the realities of public school funding because it strips away a major justification of the voucher plan. (Rep. Laurie Fowlke of Orem claims the financial mitigation aspect of HB 148 is the reason she voted for it after voting against a voucher bill in 2005.) This November 14th letter to the editor gives a succinct view of the misperception.

However, a large portion of voucher supporters locally, and virtually all advocates nationally, philosophically support removing funds from public education as a voucher program expands. They believe that a pure free-market will inevitably produce superior results through private education and increased competition for public schools. Why muddle up the point with circular reasoning about simultaneously increasing the funding of public schools? We can have an honest discussion of free market principles and schools, and people advocating either side should know the true financial impacts of their position.

Hardcore free-market proponents think that almost anything “meddled with” by the government is inefficient, unjust, or both. Senator Stephenson has recently proposed privatizing all municipal golf courses, garbage service, and recreation centers as unnecessary repression of private enterprise. (Link needed) While I was discussing vouchers last week with Senator Dayton, I brought up an interesting book on capitalism that I read a couple years ago. This economics professor, Thomas J. DiLorenzo, thinks that basically everything should be privatized, even road construction and maintenance. I brought this up as what I considered a too extreme application of free-market principles, but Senator Dayton told me she agreed that roads shouldn’t be handled by the government. I submit that most Utah voters would have issues with toll roads and better maintenance of roads in richer areas. (I will say that the story of the Plymouth Rock Colony and work is fascinating. DiLorenzo also almost has me convinced that the Standard Oil breakup was a disservice to the public, but I want to read some other opinions before I buy everything DiLorenzo says.) These privatization advocates dislike government inefficiency and control and argue that the inevitably superior performance of private schools would serve US and Utah students better.

They ignore two crucial points, one of empirical evidence and education philosophy, and one about an aspect of the free market that they consistently downplay:

In the entire history of the world, in all countries with all forms of government and economy, no society before the US during the 20th and 21st centuries has systemically educated poor, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged students. This still holds true today as other countries start sifting their less capable kids out as early as 5th grade, leaving only elite students to continue to high school and college and whose test scores cause weeping and wailing in the US when compared with our broad cross-section of students. Most American ideals reject that practice.

I can see their point on some of the free-market stuff—public education does have inherent inefficiencies in seeking to provide universal education to all Americans. However, the historic, social benefits FAR outweigh a free market alternative revealed through millennia of empirical evidence in every country of the world. There is no profit in educating poor people, thus it doesn't happen in a pure free market beyond token charity efforts. That is history; that is fact. The American people moved away from education-for-the-fittest for the first time in history during the 20th century, creating the largest and most prosperous middle class in the history of the world. (I possibly owe author, Mike Rose, credit for the last part of that statement. I thought he said it, but when I went back to his revealing book, Lives on the Boundary, it wasn’t there. It’s one of those statements bouncing around my head from college reading.) PCE bigwig, Doug Holmes, indirectly confirms my point:
"We think America was built on the public education system," Holmes says. "People associate public schools with motherhood, apple pie and freedom."
Public education is a fairly recent concept, Holmes says. "For the first hundred years, Americans had a very different approach to education."

He fails to mention that the early approach involved not educating the majority of the population, especially poor people, black people, and most women. Sure, Paul Mero constantly points out that some private schools exist today that serve disabled students. That does not prove that private schools would emerge to serve all disabled students, regardless of their socio-economic status and the severity of their conditions. All of the empirical evidence points to those schools being an exceptional response to the increase in wealth of today's society, rather than the rule, in a private system.

A true free market produces more than just the cream of the crop. The market produces a complete spectrum of service, from excellent to mediocre, horrible, fraudulent, and possibly dangerous.

The voucher advocates claimed that any low quality school would quickly go out of business as families “voted with their feet.”

I almost bought inferior windows for my house this summer at twice the price of the higher quality product I eventually found. I’ve dealt with dishonest car salesmen, bad phone service, and unresponsive college bureaucracies. Individual Utah consumers face problems everyday from unethical car repair shops, overpriced laptops with bad components advertised as the best on the planet, one of the highest rates of mortgage and investment fraud in the nation, many expensive adult colleges and certification programs that function as “diploma mills” while offering mediocre skills development, and even private youth wilderness programs that mistakenly kill students entrusted to their care.

How can this happen? Are these consumers apathetic about their own money, their own educations, and/or their children? Maybe in some cases. But a combination of effective marketing along with a lack of expertise can make anyone a sucker. We’ve all been ripped off sometime, and contrary to the claims of free-marketers, many of the worst companies actually thrive alongside the high quality companies. It’s all part of our sometimes exploitive capitalistic system which is based on harnessing our natural greed and self-preservation instincts for the public good as much as possible. It is not inherently a “virtuous” economic system that always produces the best product. This viewpoint is not one of liberal distrust of parents’ intelligence as twisted by the voucher supporters. An unbiased observation of reality must conclude that negative outcomes are at least as common as positive in private education and that even good people can make bad decisions when presented misleading information. For example, 38% of the electorate voted for vouchers. =)

Acknowledging the complete range of service in the capitalistic jungle has lead society to fund, produce, or regulate some basic public services and goods such as police protection, fire service, road construction, water, natural gas, and other basic utilities to ensure that the public good is served, even at the expense of possible profit. The survival, physical health, and economic health of the community were considered in making these decisions.

For example, a privatized system of individually hired security forces to replace the police would undoubtedly produce some local outcomes superior to what we have now. BUT…the opposite would also hold true. Some cities, counties, or states would end up saddled with expensive contracts for unethical or low quality security service, including head charges for every motorist assisted by one of the security officers on the side of the freeway. Rich neighborhoods could subcontract for superior service, leaving large segments of society to fend for themselves.

Society has rejected this scenario by providing police service for all from common tax funds. True, as in all government services, the rich largely subsidize the poor and may not even directly use the police service. But those wealthier families benefit along with the rest of society from the community being orderly and protected.

Public education provides opportunity for all students and the increased likelihood of students becoming contributing members of society rather than welfare recipients or criminals. Roads likewise make trade, work, and consumer spending possible. The government often makes bad decisions or operates inefficiently, but the tremendous moral and practical benefits these programs provide to society outweigh the disadvantages. Everyone benefits from these public goods even as we sometimes struggle to pay taxes. Trying to simultaneously fund another system of police, road building, or education would only increase the tax burden and dilute the funds needed for an already difficult undertaking. Vouchers neither capture the benefits, nor avoid the pitfalls of a free-market system of education.
American public education may have warts and a limp at times, but it is NOT broken and has produced major social and economic improvement for millions of people. I’m going to copy in the exchange on another blog inspired by posters reacting to the TRUE Oreo cookie ad:

Millard Fillmore's Bathtub
“If you consider paying taxes “financial coercion,” go somewhere else. Here we regard citizenship as a duty, a noble duty as did the Romans, for one example, and the Greeks. Our nation was founded on the assumption that patriots would do their duty to their nation. If you wish not to, make your case directly with the people.

You really want to kill public education? Make the case for doing so.

We have the world’s best system of public education because private education was not fully adequate to meet the needs of our republican government, nor for our economic development. It’s still true.”

So public education dollars predominantly go to services that benefit hundreds or thousands of students at once, i.e. schools, teachers, computers, buses, etc. The myth of "my taxes" going where "I want them"—rather than some sacrifice for society's good—changes the paradigm to school as a paid service where we purchase what we want. Whatever the exact stat is—20% percent of tax payers pay 80% percent of taxes...or something in that range—that philosophy inevitably leads to increased privatization and exclusion of a large portion of society because they can't afford their share. Most Americans and most Utahns reject that, as does the official state policy for education funding.
The second paragraph states "The WPU is NOT a plan of expenditure, or budget...but a mechanism to derive total program cost and distribute revenues." (Caps mine)

Each student shares thousands and thousands of dollars from everyone’s pooled contributions each day as they are taught by several teachers, use computer labs, books, and equipment, and learn in an expensive public facility. None of this would be attainable for the majority of students—not just the poorest students—if each family was responsible to individually finance their children’s education.

Free markets will never provide for the education of ALL children and do not guarantee a quality education to the students who do get educated. However, the rich, and the very rich such as the national-voucher-campaign-supporting Walton family, would still be able to send their kids to great schools while saving literally millions in taxes that previously educated others. Is this really a viable or desirable solution for our education problems?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please respond to this post! Certain people in Weber County believe that Utah teachers are well-compensated! Details below...
"Utah Wingmen for Property Tax RE-FORUM ( REFORM )" - 1 new article

This ought to get some comments! The truth about School Districts and teacher's salaries...the biggest part of all our taxes.
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Search Utah Wingmen for Property Tax RE-FORUM ( REFORM )
This ought to get some comments! The truth about School Districts and teacher's salaries...the biggest part of all our taxes.
Watch "Take 2" with Rod Decker tomorrow at 1100AM. Decker will try to BBQ Senator Curtis Bramble over school funding issues, vouchers and property taxes, among other things. Senator Curtis Bramble is expected to introduce a bill later this year which would go to the public for an up or down vote to bring Utah "teachers" up to the National Salary standard. It would involve raising property taxes by 70% and our income taxes by 42%. How do you like them apples? It is a necessary and brilliant tactic to elevate public understanding of the public school teacher's salary situation. Actually they are the highest paid teachers in the Western States.

Since our own Weber County chooses to behave like white trash and with hold salary information providing only hourly rates, much like Huntsville. I will use a more honest and straightforward County (Davis) which understands transparency in governance.

The median "teacher" in Davis County (after going down a list of some almost 300 administrators who are paid handsomely, with the first 11 getting from $157,428 to $99,985 BEFORE benefits) you come to the first teacher at $60,665. Normalized, the teacher is actually getting paid 1.4 X $60,665 or $84,931 for 186 days of work. ($456.62/day) Normalized to a yearly basis (234 work days minus 186 equals 48 X $456.62 = $21,917 + $84,931 = $106,848.76 a year. And that is conservative by making the assumption that teacher benefits are only worth about 40% more. We pay 30% of their salaries into their retirement funds for example. They invest the 30% we provide so in reality we pay 100% of their retirement since the interest and dividends earned is income we sacrificed (see Ut. Taxpayer Assoc.) Medical, Dental, stipends, and other perks are very likely considerably more dollars.

Now for the average Davis County "poor little ole teacher". How much is she/he actually being paid? The Mean, Median, and Mode for the 1708th Davis County teacher is $50,060. Times 1.4 (conservative estimate of benefits paid by us taxpayers = $70,085 which comes to $376.80/day which equals 48 X $376.80 = $18,086 + $70,085 = $88,171 a year. And they get three months off in the summer. Unless they want a furlough which is a fully paid two year off deal so they can goof off or go for an advanced degree on us usually.

What about that lowest of the low? The bottom of the Davis Co. salaried teachers, the new beans or entry level teacher? $30,183 salary X 1.4 = $42,256 which is $227.18 a day which equals 48 X $227.18 = $10,905 + 42,256 = $53,161.

Now excuse ME! But I don't think Electrical Engineers (EEs) in Engineering get offers in major industry right out of college to be paid at a rate of $53,161 a year with three months vacation in the summer. And I know for a dead certain fact that they do not get retirement benefits (nor does the military or the Govt. Civil Servants for that matter) anywhere near what the teachers are being allowed/paid at our expense. And I guarantee no EE, even with a Masters degree or a Doctorate degree, gets UEA days, holidays, teacher's days, and all regular holidays off in addition to the three months off a year. And EE's don't get paid assistants to do everything our generation tends to think teacher's still do either.

So add the $2,000 raises and $5,000 all means! Governor Huntsman kneel to the UEA Union, shuck up to incompetence in forgiveness for your voucher support, chasing some magic salary figure without any real accountability coming from that public school sector. Let them spend our money on banquets, balloons, and BS; on administrators who are both unnecessary and overpaid, on paid playground supervisors, paid reading coaches, paid students to grade papers, for ... well you should get the idea... This is not the same Public School System that we grew up with. It is one thoroughly out of control with no reigns in any of our legislator's or Governor's hands.

Let this continue without the guts to legislate a maximum of five (5) dependents claimable on State "Education Tax" returns and the UEA Union will continue to grind us all into the dirt. School Districts have already taken over critical State decisions from the legislature and local governments. Soon the top UEA Union person will be the real Governor of Utah and the legislators will all be public school administrators/teachers and the transition will be complete. Our taxes whether sales, education (Income), or property taxes will know no limits. The schools will empty because no one but the teacher's union membership will be able to live here and they will be in charge of educating only their own kids in empty mansion marbled showcase compounds.

At some point you guys in the legislature gotta get a shot of testosterone and stand up to these smiling crooks and send them packing. The best way is five (5) count'em only five dependents per family. Phase it in over several years but do it. It is the root cause and you know it.

OK all you PTA propagandized and teacher union folks, Mormon and Catholic large family advocates tell me where I'm wrong...

Minor Machman or D-Bell