Wednesday, September 22, 2004

COLUMN -- The taboo of free market education

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:41 AM |  

Pioneer Press
Sep. 08, 2004

Government measuring performance of public schools is a lot like pushing pins into a voodoo doll — mutilating the doll has no effect on the object of its malevolence, but the pin-pushers believe that it does. When a voodoo priest fails to inflict his will, blame is placed on inadequacy of the doll. Questioning the ritual remains taboo.

While ostensibly improving the quality of student learning, state and federal high priests of education appear more concerned with the image of the measurement and analysis "doll" than with actually educating children. Recent efforts at grading schools by government standards pokes a few more holes in the superstition that grading, managing and evolving education is best left to government bureaucrats and the education elite.

When the Department of Education declared 472 Minnesota schools, including consistently high-performing suburban schools, "under performing" relative to standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, suburban angst and outrage was the day's assignment.

"Everybody's set up to fail here eventually [by the measurement system]," lamented one suburban superintendent. "It's just a travesty."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Education Commissioner Alice Seagren were quick to point out that "failure" to meet the government "adequate yearly progress" standard doesn't mean that a school should be considered "failing."

These opinion pages declared the Education Department list of underperforming schools shows "need for tweaking the requirements" of NCLB and urged that more flexibility be worked into the law.

Like the voodoo priest, these statements conclude something is wrong with the "doll." They dare not question the ritual assumptions that 1) government (not parents) is the proper entity to determine what constitutes adequate school performance and 2) parents' role is cheerleading for the government, holding schools accountable to meet government (not their own) requirements.

When the American Federation of Teachers issued an analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that "proves" students in publicly chartered schools "lag behind" students in traditional public schools, charter supporters charged the AFT with skewing the data for political purposes. They countered with their own analysis and pointed to charter popularity as evidence of success.

Traditional public school supporters returned fire with the conclusion that without strict accountability to government and oversight by government, it is inadvisable and even dangerous to allow responsibility for education to fall to the private sector. A happy parent, noted one charter critic, doesn't always lead to an educated child — as if a happy bureaucrat always does.

These opinion pages, which have long championed the charter school movement, noted that NCLB requires that public schools that do not show academic progress be converted to charter schools. Conclusion: That many of today's charter schools are not an academic panacea "is a topic that merits deeper exploration by education officials."

So, what's a parent to do?

Well, the governor urges parents with kids at underperforming schools not to "freak out and overreact." That's pretty good advice. After all, given the current government monopoly school system, there's not much else a parent can do.

The current government education monopoly financially penalizes families (especially less affluent families) that desire to put their children in private schools with the double whammy of tax dollars for public schools and private school tuition.

Government's stranglehold on education eliminates market incentive for development of neighborhood private schools catering to the educational desires and standards of individual communities.

Government control of schools limits parental involvement by discouraging the ability to lobby for meaningful change outside the rigid parameters of government-imposed standards.
Government's education monopoly limits diversity of curriculum, teaching methods and the invisible hand of innovation that ultimately evolves more effective ways of educating children — evaluated by their parents, not some arbitrarily defined measurement ritual.

Perhaps it's time for Minnesota to stop trying to improve the doll and take a good hard look at the ritual belief that only the high priests of government education can create a viable school system. Perhaps it's time to take a good hard look at providing parents the opportunity to send their children to schools of their choice without financial penalty.

Perhaps it's time to liberate the taboo topic of free-market education.


Previous Pioneer Press columns and editorials on NCLB and government evaluation of Minnesota schools:

Editorial: "Fix Schools that get poor 'report cards'"

Editorial: "Charter schools provide needed choice"

Editorial: "Underperforming schools list shows need for tweaks"

Pro/Con: "Are charter schools a sound educational alternative?" Yes — Analysis of recent data is flawed

No — Public education should not be at the mercy of the free market