Those of you who are Simpsons fans probably remember the episode where Lisa becomes a vegetarian. There's a scene where Lisa has sent Homer's barbecue pig hurtling down the street through a bunch of obstacles including hedges, a river, and finally going airborne. The whole time, Homer's bent on keeping that pig. "It's just a little dirty. It's still good! It's still good!" "It's just a little slimy. It's still good! It's still good!" "It's just a little airborne. It's still good! It's still good!" He comes to the final realization that it's gone and he has to just let it go.
The left has its own pigs: public education, government assistance, and environmental policy among others. Despite these programs failing to achieve their stated goals, they just can't acknowledge that they are failures. "It's still good! It's still good!" is the rallying cry. The solution to the failures has always been the same: more money, more taxes, and more regulations. This prescribed solution hasn't been working for the better part of my parents' lives and the entirety of my own, yet the course never deviates. This will be a 3-part series starting with education.
Supporters of the public school system will tell you that our schools are failing because of inadequate funding and more specifically low teacher pay. This is despite Utah's performance being better than the national average even when our per-pupil funding consistently places us in the bottom 10. If funding is the answer, then why aren't we doing worse? Could it be there is more to education performance than the raw dollars being shelled out? New York proves this by having the highest per-pupil funding of any state yet consistently placing in the bottom 1/3 for education performance. Clearly there is more to it than just money.
Students participating in education alternatives also fly in the face of convention. Home schooled children often greatly outperform their public school peers and, when it's done right, have little trouble with social interactions. Home schooling, however, is often much less expensive than other schooling methods. The support network has also grown so that there are home schooling groups where parents will pool their knowledge to help each other out.
Here's were we find the key to academic excellence: parental involvement. Despite claims to the contrary, public schools actively discourage parents from participating. I hear many anecdotes that parents who tried to change the accepted order of things have been soundly rejected by teachers and administrators in public schools. This will most often happen when a child isn't well suited to the highly-structured learning environment in our Prussian-modeled school system.
There's really no incentive to change either. At worst, the parent will be a constant annoyance until their child graduates or moves to the next level. If the child is withdrawn, no big loss: they keep the money without having the associated cost. It's also very difficult to get ineffective administrators or teachers fired or disciplined. The entire public school system is built around protecting the status quo.
All this said, I believe in publicly-funded education. I do not believe in a "one size fits all" approach to education as we currently have. We need to start giving parents more options so that they can find the way to best education their children. I'm in favor of a voucher system, but creating specialized schools for different learning styles and disciplines would also be a great idea. Perhaps we need to start cutting out administrative staff and eliminate bureaucracy that keeps teachers from teaching while increasing the funding available to them. Eliminate most bussing and start getting parents to sign up for carpools to school or pay for students to have a bus pass and take the existing public transit into class. We need to start innovating instead of throwing money at the problem. If schools and school districts have the autonomy to try experiments, some of them are bound to work and improve things for us all.
There are a lot of groups dead set against trying to fix things, however, and the teachers' unions lead the charge. This isn't because making large changes to the education system will be a net negative to their members, but because the union would suffer a loss in members if more parents grabbed a hold of vouchers and went to non-union schools. The teachers would still have jobs, but they would be shifting to private schools where the pay is better and they no longer have union dues. This would be a death knell for the union and they know it.
As further proof that the unions are looking out for themselves and not their members, let's take a close look at what happened in Clark County, Nevada in 2003. The legislature was debating a record tax increase, and the teachers' union was at the forefront pushing to approve it. As a part of the tax deal, they negotiated a 1% raise for teachers while agreeing to pay slightly more in benefits. Because of the work of the union, its members lobbied hard and got the tax increase. The union then promptly raised their dues to eat up the 1% raise, leaving teachers with a net cut in compensation. It wasn't about paying teachers more: it was about teachers paying the union more.
As I mentioned earlier, my ideal system is to move to using vouchers. Currently if a parent wants their child to enroll at a private school or do home schooling, they have to pay twice: once for the public school, another for the private school. This is the equivalent of going to Burger King and being charged for a Whopper no matter what you order. There is something fundamentally flawed with a system that will do that. Even if a voucher retained a significant amount of the per-pupil funding for the state, that voucher can still mean the difference between affording or not affording education alternatives for middle-class families.
The voucher system put forth in the Utah Legislature was a perfect compromise. The highest amount a voucher could be for was only 70% of the per-pupil spending, the amount of the voucher was inversely proportional to the income of the family, and it only applied for new enrollees, not existing ones. For every student that opted for a voucher, the public school system would have none of the cost but still retain 30% of the benefit. The graduated amounts and restrictions on participation kept it from benefiting the wealthy, something lefties bemoaned repeatedly.
Since it accomplished their goals of increasing per-pupil funding while providing the most benefit to lower income brackets, you would think it would have been an acceptable compromise to the more liberal members of our legislature. Not so. The UEA managed to spread enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt to cause it to fail by the slimmest of margins. It preyed upon the fear of changing the status quo. It preyed upon the uncertainty of how many children would enroll. It preyed on the doubt that we can innovate our education system to new heights of excellence.
Lefties, wake up to the reality that it's not still good. It's a terminal patient and we need to try experimental medications to bring it back from the brink.