U.S. Education, and How to Improve It

Published March 2, 2013

The following is the text of a speech given by Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast on February 23, 2013, at the Eighth Annual Wisconsin Conservative Conference in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin

I would like to dedicate this talk to the memory of Maureen Martin, who passed away in a house fire on February 5. Some of you may have known her: She lived in Green Lake, was active in the Republican Party and Rotary Club, and was a Heartland senior fellow who wrote extensively on Act 10, environmental law, and the Second Amendment. The freedom movement lost a true friend.

The Reelection of Barack Obama
Before I talk specifically about school reform I would like to comment briefly on the reelection of Barack Obama. How was this man reelected despite the Obama recession, the Obama budget deficits, the Obamacare debacle, the Obama tax increases, and the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi? It’s hard to understand how that happened, or what it means for the future of the country.

I don’t think it means Americans have turned their backs on God or the traditional American values of individualism, freedom, and limited government. It wasn’t a “turning point” signaling that a majority of the public now wants slow economic growth, bigger deficits, government control of health care, or the rest of the Obama agenda. Surveys show most Americans still consider themselves conservative. They believe government is too big, the debt and taxes are too high, and they don’t trust government in general and President Obama in specific to solve their problems.

Freedom-Building Movement
If Ronald Reagan’s name were on the ballot for president instead of Mitt Romney, he would have won 70 percent to 30 percent. But a bold and articulate conservative wasn’t at the head of the ticket. A moderate Republican from the Northeast was. But even that didn’t really cost Republicans the presidential election. Obama won for three reasons:

  • His billion-dollar campaign bought a state-of-the-art computer system to get out his voters, while the Republican’s computer program crashed on election night. That alone cost Romneya couple points.
  • Hurricane Sandy and then Chris Christie embracing Obama cost Romney a couple points more.
  • Voter fraud cost a couple points more.

That was enough for Obama to win the election. You don’t need to blame anyone or anything else to explain why Obama won.

We need to realize that single elections, even two or three elections, are not all that important. What is important is the long-term: building a freedom movement that can withstand short-term election losses, that can move us, not always in a straight line, in the direction of more freedom and less government.

Politics and School Reform
Which brings us to school reform, the subject I’ve been asked to talk about. In 2016, in time for the next presidential election, every child now in high school will be eligible to vote for the president of the United States. Who will they vote for?

In 2020, when it comes time to reelect or replace that president, every child now in middle school will be eligible to vote. Who will they vote for?

They won’t vote for conservative candidates if they aren’t being taught real civics. Real civics can be summarized in one sentence: “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed bytheir Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

How many recent high school graduates know where that sentence comes from or what it means? Very few, I would say. But if they don’t understand it, why would they vote for a candidate who promises to uphold the principles it expresses?

High school students need to be taught real economics: that true wealth is created by free individuals working hard and taking risks. True wealth requires private property rights and free markets, not governments taking by force from one person and giving it to another. We have a president who thinks wealth is created by redistribution, that the producers of theworld will continue to produce no matter how high the taxes or how heavy the regulations. High school graduates (and college graduates) are taught to think the same way. So they voted for Obama, a man who never created a single job or had to meet a payroll.

The third thing students need to learn is real virtues: honesty, hard work, self-responsibility ,faith, hope, and love. Are these things being taught in public schools today? Maybe in some, but not in many.

Here’s my main point: So long as government owns and operates 90 percent of the schools in the United States, we have no right to expect that fewer than 90 percent of students who graduate are socialists.

As Milton Friedman once said, we have no right to expect cats to bark or dogs to meow. So why should we expect government schools to do anything other than produce graduates who support more government? It’s a cruel thing to say, but it’s true.

America’s History of School Choice
Let’s go back and consider the history of schooling in America … not in the United States, in America. In the 1640s the Massachusetts General Court – the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – passed laws making parents and ministers responsible for ensuring children could read the Bible and understand principles of religion and the laws of the colony. They were the first education laws in America.

They did not create public schools. They did not create a curriculum. They did not specify how many years children needed to attend school or how many hours they had to sit in classrooms. They didn’t license or register teachers. They didn’t require tests. And they didn’t levy taxes to pay any teachers. That system spread to other colonies, and then to the states.

It lasted 200 years, until the 1840s. During that time, what we now call K-12 education was almost entirely delivered by private schools, private tutors, and by families, what we call today homeschooling. The system did involve some public funding – it was not a libertarian fantasy world. But it was overwhelmingly financed by tuition and private charity. Whereas today’s school system is characterized by mandates, monopolies, and waste, for 200 years we had a free-market education system that was organized by freedom, competition, and efficiency.

By the 1840s, male adult literacy was about 90 percent in the North and 80 percent in the South. And what those people knew about civics, economics, and virtues puts to shame what today’ shigh school and even college graduates know. You can talk all you want about how important chemistry, calculus, and foreign languages are in today’s global economy, and they probably are important, but if you’re not teaching civics, economics, and virtues, what are they worth?

A nation can’t compete successfully with other nations if its citizens are engineers, scientists,and poets but don’t understand how democracy and the economy work. You can’t have a free and prosperous society without each generation learning the truth about civics, economics, and virtues.

How the Left Destroyed Schooling in America
This system of free-market education was destroyed over the course of two decades starting in the 1850s, the result of an effort led by Horace Mann, the first secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts. They started by taking advantage of anti-Catholic bigotry that was widespread at the time: They called for withholding public funding only from Catholic schools.

Once they had succeeding in kicking the Catholics out of K-12 education they campaigned to ban public funding for all religious schools. They placed Blaine amendments on the constitutionsof 37 states, including Wisconsin. “Progressives” and communists then joined the religious bigots to call for ending all public funding of private schools in America and to make schooling in government schools tuition-free. Teachers got on board because they saw it as a way to improve their wages and job security, and they were right, it did. Unions saw it as a way to make organizing teachers easier, and they were right, too, it did. Politicians saw it as a way to build a huge patronage army, and boy were they ever right.

The adults who are paid to educate kids got what they wanted. The result is the system we see today: nearly all public money goes to government schools. Government owns the buildings, hires the teachers, dictates the curriculum, writes the tests, and even gets to decide whether or not it’s doing a good job. It sets the standards.

One Size Fits None
Not surprisingly, this system evolved in ways that benefitted the adults who are employed by the system – administrators and teachers – and not students. Teachers get tenure. Certification requirements erect barriers to entry, and pay becomes based on tenure and degrees rather than classroom performance. Kids are assigned to schools based on where their parents live because that’s easier for the adults to know how many will enroll in a particular school next year. Control is centralized because that makes it easier for politicians and bureaucrats to enforce the rules on teachers, but it’s not good for kids … or teachers.

One-size-fits-all is easier for bureaucracies, but it’s not good for kids. No two kids learn the same way, and no two teachers teach the same way. Anyone who has kids knows this, and anyone who knows or has watched teachers work knows this. Yet the system sends kids to one size-fits-all schools and forces teachers to all teach the same things the same way. They even have policies now that make curriculum “teacher proof,” as if teachers would mess it up if they weren’t watched and managed every minute of the school day.

So kids end up in schools that aren’t matched to their needs. Teachers are stuck in schools with philosophies they disagree with, and bureaucracies consume more money than is spent on teachers.

The Return of School Choice
A movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s to return the country’s education system to what had worked so well for 200 years – freedom of choice and competition. In 1958, Virgil Blum, a professor at Marquette University right here in Milwaukee, wrote a book titled Freedom of Choice in Education making the case for public funding of tuition for kids to attend privateschools – vouchers. In 1962 an economist at the University of Chicago named Milton Friedman described the idea in a book titled Capitalism and Freedom. Because he was better known and would go on to win a Nobel Prize in economics, his endorsement sparked national debate.

Vouchers restore freedom of choice and competition to education by funding parents rather than schools: parents decide which schools their children attend and schools compete for the dollars. Government still funds education, but the actual production and delivery of education is in the hands of parents and private schools. It’s an important distinction, one that explains why Milton Friedman, a libertarian, nevertheless supported continued public financing of schools – because regulations don’t necessarily follow public funds when the funds subsidize demand, or consumers, instead of supply, or producers.

It wasn’t until 1990, the year Blum died, that the first modern public voucher program was adopted, again right here in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program started with 341 students enrolled in seven private schools. Today, approximately 24,000 students attend 120 schools and the program was just expanded to 11 schools and 500 students in Racine. Independent evaluations of the program show higher test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment, and parental satisfaction … all at a cost per student that is less than half as much as the government schools spend.

Future of the Freedom Movement
What can’t be measured, but what is even more important, is that what the kids are learning is different. They are learning real civics, real economics, and real virtues. They are graduating equipped to be productive members of society and informed and responsible voters. They will be makers and not takers. Those graduates are becoming their generation’s opinion leaders. They are natural leaders. They are the future of the freedom movement.

The rest of the country has noticed and school choice is now spreading fast. Today there are 29 voucher and tax credit programs operating in 21 states and Washington DC. Some 212,000 students are enrolled in private schools thanks to vouchers and tax credits. Half of the programs were launched since 2006. In 2011–2012 13 new programs were started, 14 were expanded, and 42 state legislatures considered legislation. The Friedman Foundation says nationwide, choice programs saved taxpayers $422 million in 2012.

The Future of School Choice
Where do we go from here? Wisconsin needs to expand school choice statewide: no means testing, no geographical restrictions. The amount of the voucher needs to be increased, not all the way up to what government schools spend, because half of that is pure waste. But half of what government schools spend – around $7,775 per student, rather than the $6,442 the voucher students currently receive, would be about right. That’s what charter schools in Wisconsin get today.

One way to expand vouchers is the Parent Trigger, a law originally passed in California a few years ago and now spreading across the country. The Parent Trigger says if a majority of parents sign a petition saying they want vouchers to send their children to private schools, or to flip their local public school into a charter school, the school district would have to do it.

Think about that: Parents would have the power to transform their children’s education simply by signing a petition. Compare that to the obstacles they face today. It would transform education practically overnight.

In conclusion, we once had the greatest education system in the world. The left destroyed it, and one result is the political crisis we face today. Generations of voters never were taught the meaning of the Declaration of Independence or the purpose of the U.S. Constitution. They don’ tunderstand economics and so they are easily fooled by politicians who preach redistribution instead of production. They don’t understand the virtues that a free society needs to prosper.

If we can return to a free-market education system we can solve our political problems. School choice is the answer to the questions we’re all asking about the future of our country. I hope you will do everything you can to keep Wisconsin on the forefront of the battle for more school choice.

Thank you for letting me speak here today. Thank you, Sister Agatha, for teaching me to read and write. And God bless America.

Image by Jason Langheine.