Freedom, Productivity, Prosperity, and K-12 Education Reform

Why would one begin a discussion on k-12 education reform by talking about freedom, productivity, and prosperity?  Productivity growth has been the fundamental driver of human progress from an existence of nearly universal poverty, sickness, and short lives to one where a majority  not only have adequate food, clothing, housing, and previously inconceivable average longevity, but also ever-increasing conveniences, recreation, and entertainment.

Increasing productivity simply means increasingly smaller amount of inputs (time, energy, and resources) resulting in increasingly larger outputs (goods and services).  Productivity growth spurred the innovation that transformed our young nation’s economy from one that primarily provided basic goods of subsistence to one where subsistence goods are now a small fraction of our economic production.  In our economy, goods and services available are practically limited only by the limits of individuals’ imaginations.

What was the spark that set off this miracle of perpetually increasing productivity? It was freedom, or more precisely the European liberal enlightenment beginning in the late 17th century recognizing that every individual intrinsically has a right to their own life, action, and property, and the obligation to respect the same in all others. Formal recognition and protection of those inalienable rights in the mid -18th century by liberal government – a system of property rights, rule of law, and limited government interference – kicked off the industrial revolution and underpinned the subsequent economic advancement to the present day.

This new system of government replaced a feudal system where there was a monarch who was the law of the land, and a small elitist land-owning minority.  That feudal economy was truly a limited pie where the serf majority struggled just to survive, and the royalty and land-owners lived at the expense of the impoverished.  All that changed with establishment of liberal government.  Individuals now secure in their property rights, imagined, innovated, and worked to create an ever expanding total stock of goods and services; not at the expense, but to the indirect benefit of everyone else.  Wealth no longer resulted from taking a larger portion of a fixed economy from the poor majority denied of property rights and rule of law but rather by creating new value – goods and service – and thereby ever growing the economic pie.

How is this long introduction on productivity relevant to public education reform?  Putting aside previously discussed shortcomings of public education, one devastating fact alone makes obvious the failings of government k-12 education: Between 1970 and 2010, total spending per student in k-12 education nearly tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars – $56,903 to $164,426 – while test scores have remained flat.  This is an astonishing contraction of productivity (3x the inputs for the same output).  Our lives have been revolutionized in so many ways during that same time frame, yet the basic educational model of a teacher standing in front of a classroom teaching the same material to those students 8AM to 4PM, 5days a week, 9months a year has barely changed since the early days of our nation.

How did the productivity miracle bypass public education?  A liberty truism – for any good or service that is expensive, ineffective, or hard to come by, look for and you will find government regulation, tax, and/or protected monopoly.

Reform requires exposing our $600-billion-year k-12 education system to the same market forces that transformed so many other realms of our lives.  Market competition is too often misunderstood as a dog-eat-dog rather than what it truly is – the mechanism whereby individual freedom, choice, and needs drive innovation and solutions.  Not one solution for everyone but rather multiple solutions that meet the needs and desires of diverse individuals and families.

Free market competition is the most sublime, peaceful, and effective means of cooperation and advancement humanity has ever known.  It is the antithesis of central planning where “solutions” are imposed by the government and intelligentsia.  Hmm, that sounds a lot like royalty and the land-owning minority.

I am not arguing that k-12 education should be left up to the free market; although I believe such an argument can be powerfully made.  Rather, if government taxation is to be utilized to fund k-12 education for all, in order to maximize productivity of the resources committed, then those funds should be allocated utilizing the principles of individual freedom and market competition.  Letting parents choose where their children’s educational dollars go will drive innovation, lower costs, and better educational opportunities fulfilling the needs and desires of diverse family circumstances.

The k-12 education competition would take place on at least 3 axes – cost, outcome, and values.  The argument for competition lowering costs and improving outcomes barely needs to be made.  More consumer demand, in this case by giving parents the freedom to choose the education they believe best for their children, will promote innovation and value on the supply side of the market.  For some students the right outcome may be the educational foundation to succeed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professions, for others it may be a service or mechanical profession.

Values ultimately refer to one’s understanding of right and wrong and vary broadly in our diverse society. These are deeply held and personal beliefs that should be left to families, not chosen by the government elite and intelligentsia.  Bureaucratic imposition of values on families and individual is arrogance and tyranny at its worse.  Furthermore, having witnessed the breakdown traditional family structure in the poor inner city and subsequent breakdown of civil society in those neighborhoods, we are recognizing values regarding families including marital fidelity, parental responsibility, and responsibility for elderly parents matter.   A school choice driven competition among values systems will have far-reaching societal benefits.

A final point: The excellent educators in our current system, much like the inner-city impoverished children, are the innocent victims of a failed government-protected, union-controlled public education system.  Parental choice will result in merit based teacher professional advancement.  Excellent educators will be highly sought after and valued, ending union-dictated advancement by seniority.  Parental choice in k-12 education will restore the respect, dignity, and trust the profession of educating our children deserves.

Please join the campaign for liberty.  Our future freedom and prosperity depend on it.

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