Public education systems needs competition

COMPASS: Other points of view

August 21, 2012 

Steve Haycox is an interesting historian and insightful societal observer. But, he falls short when ideology trumps fact, as it did in his discussion of public education ( "Attacks Against Public Education Accent Rich-Poor Chasm," Aug. 10).

Haycox implies vouchers are a means for wealthy parents to create "private enclaves" of education for their children. He is wrong. Vouchers; merit pay; digital learning, they are all innovative ways to improve the education of children; especially of the children who are most underserved, which is too often minorities and the poor.

They work too. A two-year study conducted by the Brookings Institute, Harvard and the University of Wisconsin (2000) showed improvement among minority children using vouchers in D.C., NYC and Dayton. Unfortunately, under pressure from teachers unions, President Obama shut the D.C. program down.

In his summation of the history of U.S. public education, Haycox misses some important facts. Public schools weren't the only option for parents. Since at least the mid-1800s, Catholic schools have educated tens of millions of America's children, Catholic or not, at little or no cost. Hundreds of those Catholic schools are unfortunately gone. Those that are still around must now charge tuition.

Many things have impacted the quality of public education. Advocates moved social programs into the schools. Prayer and punishment were removed. Teachers' authority was undermined. Unionization shifted officials' foci from educating children to placating unions. The needs of children were superseded by the wants of adults.

Dr. Haycox states poverty and dysfunction complicate education. They do. All the more reason to allow disadvantaged parents some choices.

Today in Anchorage about 70 percent of our students graduate from high school. Long-time superintendent Carol Comeau excused this graduation rate, at least in part, by pointing out the high percentage of low-income (44 percent) and minority (53 percent) students.

If we offered vouchers, incentive pay or other innovative solutions, could we produce robust alternatives to our moribund public schools? Could parents make better choices for their children than school administrators? Could competition for funding improve education and reduce cost?

It sure works in other areas. Anyone want one supermarket chain? One airline? Want to go back to one phone company?

Could others do better than our public schools under similar circumstances? In New York City the Catholic schools educate a higher percentage of minorities (94 percent) and have more impoverished students (70 percent) than Anchorage. Yet, they graduate 99 percent of their students; 96 percent go on to college.

On average across the United States $10,995 is spent per capita on students. U.S. Catholic schools spend under $7,000 (NCEA.org). We in Anchorage spend $15,225.

Are we being ripped off by the Anchorage School District? No, I wouldn't say that. I would say that when an organization has no competition, reason to worry about excesses or benchmark against which to be compared, it gets flabby and lazy.

Of course, the public schools don't fail everyone. Better-educated, wealthier people know how to game the system. Their kids get a good, even sometimes great education. They lobby and network to get their kids into special programs, charter schools, and the better teachers' classrooms. The children of the less educated, less informed and newly arrived get the leftovers.

Innovations in education aren't attempts to gut public schools. Who would that possibly serve? They are attempts to get all kids a good education, and hopefully invigorate and sharpen the public schools through competition at the same time.

To insist, as many in the education industry do, that all we need do is throw yet more money at schools, is not only foolish, not only repetitive and unclever, it is irresponsible. A child gets only one shot at an education. Each year it is subpar, that child's ability to reach her full potential is diminished. That's more than not fair; it's unconscionable.

Joann Pantages lives in Anchorage.

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