Private Education, and Why Our System Is Failing

A recent discussion with two online friends caused me to reflect on education.
I’m a product of a small public high school (in Leesville, Louisiana) and a small university (University of Texas-El Paso). Most Americans share a similar background. The system worked for us, back then, but it doesn’t work nearly so well now.
And none of the proposed fixes have made a bit of difference.
Students are stressed; teachers are stressed; some, lacking any other solution, cheat. Even school boards cheat (EPISD, for one, the district I once worked for; the cheating happened several years after I retired, and it was done at the district-administration level; teachers had no input into what happened).
My friends, who have a libertarian philosophy, feel that the solution to our education mess is the free-market approach. I don’t agree. Such a system has several major flaws.
The first one is simple: there’s no law against opening your own school. Go ahead, invest the money, hire the teachers, apply for certification, and invite people to bring their children. Collect a fee for services and just like that, you’re off and running.
Until you go broke. And you are very likely to do so during your first year.
There are such schools, and many have been around for a century. Excellent schools; the nation’s wealthiest citizens send their children to such.
And that’s the problem; such schools are only for the wealthy. They cost roughly what a university education costs. Ordinary Americans can’t afford them.
The private/charter schools, instead of offering their product in a free-market system where competition would result in excellence, neatly bypass competition by collecting not from customers but from government. In so doing, they siphon off needed money from public schools.
So why can’t public schools compete?
Actually, they do. Note that I graduated from a public school, as did my sons and grandsons.
But public schools must do things private schools don’t.
They provide transportation to those that need it. Simple solution to busing, instead of huge schools that draw students from wide areas, keep schools small and locate them where students can walk to school or be brought by parents. The larger schools are thought to be more efficient, but when you add in costs of transportation, plus the reduced education outcomes, I question whether large schools really are more efficient.
The other thing that differentiates public schools from private schools is government control. Schools are no longer about education; they’re about social engineering, about inclusion, about lawsuits. Some of these are positive, and it may be that all of these trends are positive in the long run; but they’re expensive. And that’s the failure of the American school system in a nutshell.
Testing only proves what many already knew: we’re not producing the level of education among graduates that we once did.
Schools are about funding; the rule is, live within the budget. It’s the ‘business’ approach.
But kids don’t fit into the column of figures. Some require more services, whether adaptive services such as ramps for physically handicapped, to smaller classes (more teachers; expensive) or resource-intensive classes for the educationally handicapped.
If there’s an advantage to the private-industry school, that is where it’s to be found. As a private company, such schools can avoid much of the governmental/judicial mandates that, however well intentioned, don’t come with funding.
In a rational system, trained professionals would assess the funding needs and come up with a budget. This would be presented to the school board or other authority, much as departments of the government do . Instead, it’s much more the top-down approach: here’s the money and this is what you must do, and you’re forbidden to make changes by dropping programs or dropping expensive students because you don’t have enough money.
There’s another hidden corollary to this: unproductive and misbehaving students.
The budget is based on a cost-per-student basis, and if student enrollment increases the budget is increased. But if students are habitually truant, schools lose money. This means that if students violate rules, they aren’t expelled; they’re sent to an alternative school, set up to deal with such. If students cannot or will not benefit from attendance at a public school, they’re still kept there, because doing so brings in money.
Private schools don’t operate that way. Those schools I mentioned in the beginning, the ones that wealthy people send their kids to? They had a different solution. If you misbehave, for example bring a weapon to school, you’re expelled. If you refuse to do the work, you’re dismissed. If you are so disruptive that other students can’t learn, you’re expelled. Parents quickly become involved, because having paid considerable amounts of money to those private schools, they don’t want their children expelled.
One final comment about those private, for-profit charter schools: if they don’t produce, they go bankrupt. Good economics, bad sociology. What happens to the students who were enrolled? If you’re a factory making widgets, you can send the ones that don’t pass inspection back and have them fixed. Kids aren’t widgets; they have a narrow time-frame where education either takes place or it doesn’t. Subsequent efforts at adult remedial education  can help, but it can’t fix what went wrong during those formative years.
I don’t know that there’s a solution. We elect officials, and as soon as they take office they become magically expert in everything. The urge to stick a finger in and stir things up is overwhelming. So they do.
And the system gets stirred up, but somehow it’s not better. Short of a total redesign, I don’t see improvement taking place.

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