It’s the monopoly, stupid

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By Kelley Williams | Chair, Bigger Pie Fourm | October 25, 2015

The main problem with K-12 public school education may not be the lack of funding. It’s more likely the lack of competition. Public schools are government monopolies. Monopolies are protected from competition. They don’t have to innovate to improve to survive. So they don’t. They just get ever more bureaucratic and insular. The public school monopoly justifies its existence by its mission: to educate our children. The measure of its effectiveness is how much money it spends, not how well it prepares our children. Spending for Mississippi’s public schools has increased every year for 20 years. ACT scores have flat lined for 20 years.

Monopoly problems. The public school monopoly patient has been in intensive care forever. It has money drips in both arms. Initiative 42 would bring in Dr. Chancery Judge to put money drips in both legs. Not to worry 120103022050-school-thumbthat the judge may not be a specialists in public school education. More education specialists and experts don’t seem to make a difference anyway. According to the Mississippi Department of Education teacher salaries now account for 33% of total spending. Twenty years ago it was 41%. Total spending has increased. Spending for teachers has increased. Spending for administrators has increased more. But ACT scores are still flat. It seems more bureaucrats do not produce better results.  Imagine that.

It may be time to pull the plug on the monopoly. Or at least try something different. How about a healthy dose of competition? More charter schools. And vouchers to give parents a choice. That would give poor parents with children in failing schools an alternative while we throw more money and more bureaucrats at the monopoly.

Could competition help? Is there any reason to think competition might actually improve public schools too? Maybe. There is competition in public schools now in athletics. It seems to work. Football and other sports are pretty competitive. It’s a zero sum game: a loser for every winner.  Not surprisingly winning coaches seem to have more options. They stay until they get  a better job offer. Then they move on.  Losers, not so many options.  They tend to stay until they  get promoted to, say, assistant principal. Not many firings for poor performance in the public school monopoly. Losing coaches might actually get promoted faster than winners – to make room to bring in a winner.  Hey, football is important.  You do what you gotta’ do to win.

Public schools compete very well with private schools in football. Frequently they dominate. Not so much in academics. It may be that public school athletes are more talented than their private school counterparts. Or that there are more of them. That may explain more college football scholarships. And it may be that private school students and home schooled students are smarter than public school students. That may account for their higher ACT scores. But what explains those public schools that are competitive in both athletics and academics? And what about those that are competitive in athletics but not academics?  And what about parents with kids in those schools who are not athletes?  Or whose kids are athletes – maybe good athletes and who could be good students too? But who sadly may always be dumb jocks.

A chance. I know first hand the story of a kid in a failing public school. A really big kid who is now a starter and a leader on a Division One football team. His teachers thought he was dumb. They told his mom they would promote him anyway if he would just come to class and not cause problems. His mom was distraught. She wanted him to learn. But she was working two jobs and taking care of seven children. Turns out the kid wasn’t dumb. It was hard to tell, though, because he couldn’t read. The coach of his sixth grade church football team took an interest in him and his family. The coach and his friends helped him learn to read and put him and his oldest sister in private schools. He struggled at first, but then did well and graduated. So did his sister. He hopes to play professional football. He says he wants to be a geologist after that. He might just do it. He has a chance.

He has a chance now because he had a chance to get out of a failing school and into a better learning environment – before it was too late for him. We keep feeding the public school monopoly ever more money trying to fix it. While we try, time runs out on lots of kids. You can’t turn the clock back for them.

Petrified sacred cow. The public school monopoly is a sacred cow. It’s disloyal to question it. Just fund it. “Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”  We need to remember these words under Mark Twain’s Hall of Fame bust.

We need to break the chain of the petrified public school monopoly. We need to free the souls of kids trapped in C and D rated schools. At least try to free some of them. Why not try something different? Why not give those kids and their parents a chance to find something better? Something that works. Parents might spend education dollars better than the public education monopoly does.

Initiative 42 would turn school funding and other educational issues over to a chancery judge.  It’s a big fight over some 5% more funding for the monopoly – as though that will make a difference. However, if parents had access to 5% of the $2.3 annual public school budget to move their kids from failing schools, it might make a huge difference in their lives. It might even make public schools better.

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