I had a really interesting conversation today that gave me some hope for the next generation. Greg, Ben, and I were returning from lunch on the way to our car when we saw a group of students, probably 17 to 19 years old, carrying signs for a non-partisan organization trying to raise awareness about educational issues.
Greg engaged them in a conversation to discuss what should be done to improve education. Initially, they were reluctant to mention any ideas because they said their organization was not proposing any solutions but rather just trying to increase discussion about educational issues. Greg asked them to say what they personally thought independent of their organization.
One of the students said that he thought we needed to improve the public schools because many of them were really bad. Greg asked him how he would improve them and the student replied we could give the really bad ones more money. Greg asked him whether it was a good idea to reward bad schools by giving them more money as opposed to giving the good schools more money to be able to educate more students. This sparked an interesting discussion. These students had assumed as a given that the right way to fix the education system was to provide more resources to the worst schools.
Greg suggested to them to consider a neighborhood with a few restaurants. If one of them was really bad, should we try to fix it by giving it money to improve. They agreed that this wasn't a good idea. Greg suggested that maybe we should close the bad schools. The group then replied that students would have no place to go. Greg asked why couldn't the vice-principal at the really good school became the principal at a new school to replace the bad school. He could hire a new staff and run it with all the lessons learned from the really good school. They liked that idea.
We got into a discussion of how money really isn't the source of the problem. I told them that in Washington, D.C., the Federal government pays $13,000 per student and they have one of the worst education systems in the country. I asked them what they thought if instead, we gave those parents $13,000 vouchers to spend at any school they wanted. I suggested that lots of private schools would pop up all over the place and parents would have a lot of choices of where to send their kids. They totally agreed that this would probably make the education system there much, much better. One of the students said that she could have gone to a really good private prep school if she had been given a $13,000 voucher.
I also asked them whether people in New Hampshire and Manchester should get to decide how they teach their students or whether that should be dictated to them by the government in Washington, D.C. They strongly agreed that it should be done at the state level, but then one student said he thought there should be some federal guidelines. I brought up that No Child Left Behind was just such an example, to which they were opposed.
I think by the end of the conversation, we changed their perspectives. We hopefully made them realize that giving people choice and having the suppliers of a service compete is a much better solution than a government granted monopoly that has little market incentive to do better.
Ben brought up the point afterwards that people think of schools as having feelings and we can't close them because it would hurt the school. Is this really to the benefit of the students? Or is this to the benefit of the teachers and staff who run these schools who are next to impossible to fire under normal circumstances regardless of their performance?
I believe a free market solution for education in this country would dramatically improve our education system. Government granted monopolies are never in the interest of the consumer. We could still have public funding for education but instead let parents and students have a choice of what school to send their kids by giving them vouchers. We have the best colleges and universities in the world. Could this be due to the fact that there is so much competition and choice? Why can't we have competition and choice at all levels of education? We currently have a single-provider system for education. A new model is needed.