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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Addressing the High Cost of Education

The cost of a commodity is often largely determined by the efficiency of how it is produced. Often when a product or service first becomes available the cost to produce it is relatively high, but drops over time as the production process is made more efficient. For example, when hand-held calculators first became available they were very expensive mainly because the production of the electronic chip was very time and labor intensive. Over time automation made chip production much more efficient and led to lower production costs, which in turn led to lower prices for the products that use the chips. Lower costs allowed more competition to enter the market which led to still lower costs for the consumer.

Contrast the trends in the cost to the consumer of electronics with that of education. While the cost of most electronics has decreased sharply over the last 25 years the cost of education has sky-rocketed to a level well above the rate of inflation.

Why should education be different than of any other commodity? It has been around for centuries and there should surely be empirical data to show what works and what doesn't in terms of the efficiency of delivering the product. I maintain that there are well known ways to make education effective and efficient, but the "Big Education" special interest lobby has no incentive to make their product cost effective. The government has created a monopoly for the product which has allowed those with financial and/or political interests to focus their efforts on furthering their financial and political agenda without having to deal with competition. There is no incentive to control costs as the taxpayer is viewed as a captive and endless revenue source that can easily be made to keep on paying through legislative mandates and "it's for the children" demagoguery.

What can be done about the soaring cost of education? If the problem is addressed in the same way it would be for any other commodity, the obvious solution is to increase the efficiency of producing the product and removing the barriers to competition. This leads to a few possibilities to consider:

1) Dismantle the Department of Education at both the state and national level

As shocking as this suggestion may be to bureaucrats and liberals, it is not difficult to conclude that these bureaucracies are not needed and do little more than propagate the government monopoly on education while consuming tax dollars at an alarming rate. The federal Department of Education, founded by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, was nothing more than a political payoff to the education lobby for support of his 1976 campaign. This country got along just fine without this bureaucracy (and without Jimmy Carter) for 200 years and the population certainly appeared to be better educated without breaking the budget. Note that President Kennedy's challenge to the country in the 1960's to put a man on the moon within a decade, which involved some serious education of the population, was accomplished without this bureaucratic money abyss.

As far as the state is concerned, the bureaucratic structure of the Department of Education would make Rube Goldberg envious. Take a look at all of the divisions and departments and, just by the names, count the ones that appear to have a direct impact on the ability to teach a K-12 student--the count will not be large. There seems to be more infrastructure to assure that little Johnny is put in classes with little Moesha, little Mohammed, little Pedro, and little Chang than to assure that Johnny, Moesha, Mohammed, Pedro, and Chang are effectively taught regardless of who their classmates are.

There are also mechanisms to assure that there will be lots of reporting to numerous state and federal agencies to document that government dictated quotas on "diversity" are being met so as not to upset Jesse Jackson, the ACLU, or the GLBT community. Along the same lines, there are also provisions to assure that children will be taught in a language appropriate to their culture and ethnicity.

This wonderful organization also implements, extensively documents, and enforces policies to make sure our children are protected from inappropriate influences like religion and non-union educators while having their birth control needs catered to. All of these "benefits" cost us only $45 million a year in direct funding to the agency. Use your imagination to figure out much of the remainder of the $12 billion cost of education is driven by the actions and edicts of this fine organization.

In addition to the Minnesota Department of Education, there are over 60 other government, quasi-government, and non-profit organizations with their fingers in the educational pie. Do we really need this much "support" to provide K-12 students with a good foundation in reading, writing, arithmetic, science, and geography? Want to guess where most of the funding for these organizations ultimately comes from?


2) Decertify the unions involved in education


Unions in general are no longer needed in this country as government regulations at all levels have more than assumed the legitimate concerns (workplace safety, pay equity, prevention of worker exploitation, etc.) addressed by unions in the past. This is especially true in the context of white collar professionals. As such, the educational unions are now little more than a leverage mechanism to maintain the educational bureaucracy and promote the liberal political and social agendas as well as providing a very lucrative living for union executives. The unions have used strikes and the threat of strike to blackmail school districts into budget busting benefits agreements and work rules. It takes some really contorted logic to assert that the actions of the education unions are for the benefit of the children. One union official went as far to say that "until students start paying union dues" they are not a factor in determining the union's positions (this was on a video clip shown on the old Rush Limbaugh television show).

I'm not anti-teacher, but let's face it--teaching our children is important, but it's not rocket science. The mentality that a teaching career must be guaranteed by government and unions to be a high paying, long term professional career is not economically sustainable. Perhaps the teaching profession, especially in K-12 education, should be viewed as an entry level career position from which many will move on to the private sector to continue their careers. Some will choose to make a life-long career of it as a secondary source of household income. This would not preclude good teachers as there would be more "fresh blood" coming into the profession as teachers in the profession move on before burn-out sets in. Also, don't overlook the potential of retired professionals with a wealth of experience and knowledge who may really enjoy teaching our children while supplementing their retirement incomes.

3) Localize K-12 education and open it to privatization and competition

Local school districts all have, or at least should have, school boards made up of concerned parents and highly educated (and highly paid) superintendents. There is no reason why these people cannot make the majority of the decisions on how the children within their district are educated. If they can't or won't, the public can vote them out of office and vote in people who will do the job.

Local school districts are perfectly capable of either staffing their community schools or awarding a contract to a private company to handle it. Some municipalities may decide that they do not need to be involved in education at all other than to allow private schools to open in their community (which will happen if there is an economic demand for them). This could be accomplished if education were paid for by parents.

Contrary to what many liberals would claim, parents could afford to pay for their children's education if the government eliminated the outrageous taxes they are currently paying to promulgate the current out of control public system. In fact, many parents are now enduring great economic hardship to send their children to private schools in addition to funding the public education mess through their taxes. The state won't "need" near as much money as it currently does for education so there should be no problem with financing the state government on reduced tax receipts (or, God forbid, they could cut spending).

As a practical matter, government at some level will probably still need provide a rudimentary educational system for those who can't or won't educate their children, but it doesn't need to be the bureaucratic nightmare the current system is.

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