Monday, February 18, 2008

Matt Miller wants to have national funding of public education

A friend brought to my attention an NPR interview of Matt Miller on his proposal to nationalize school funding. The interview is almost seven minutes. It is partly in response to Matt's recent article First, Kill All the School Boards.

Matt's concern is that it is not fair that some school districts get more money per pupil than other school districts. He also says that local control is not working, that the teacher unions have too great influence. His solution is two steps:

1) Have the federal government collect all the taxes for education and then give each school district their "fair share" of the tax money.
2) Some how give individual schools more local control.

There are so many problems with this proposal it is hard to know where to start.

One of the first problems that occurred to me is that it is not clear the exactly same amount of money should be spent per student. Matt is upset that Massachusetts spends more than Missouri, but the cost of living is much higher in Massachusetts. It costs more to hire teachers. It costs more to buy land. If there were some federal law mandating that each school got exactly the same amount per student, the schools in Boston would effectively receive less money.

The obvious answer is to then some how benchmark a local cost of living adjustment, but this would be the camel's nose to increase more federal government control of public education. Bad idea.

Matt's article starts off by appealing to Horace Mann and Mann’s efforts to improve literacy in America. Matt doesn't seem to understand that this wasn't the problem Horace Mann was trying to solve. In 1850, before the government funded schools started taking off, literacy was at a high rate. A generation of McGuffrey readers produced an amazing high level of literacy in the mid to late 1800s. Horace Mann's solution was for a problem that didn't exist. Horace got a lot of support from people who were concerned about all the Catholic Irish immigrants. Horace appealed for support by saying that public schools would help convert these ignorant Catholic children into good educated Protestants. These so called uneducated Catholic children were attending Catholic schools. Religion, not literacy, was the issue.

Fundamentally Matt seems to be avoiding some of the politics of education. He is concerned over the how ineffective local school boards are in improving public education. I agree that public school boards are a problem. But Matt then proposes to move control even farther away from parents by pushing all the money through Washington DC. He seems to think it will be easy to pass laws allowing more local control, but if Congress takes over the complete funding of public schools you know that Congress and special interest groups will push to have more control.

We've had friends who have dealt with public school boards. We've had friends who have run and been on public school boards. My perception is not that we have too much local autonomy, but too little.

I do agree with Matt on one point. Teacher Unions have great influence on school boards. And because of so many laws, school boards have little real options. They can decide to paint the school red or green, but it is hard to make any fundamental change without running into a law. There are so many rules and laws about what public school boards can and can not do, that pressure from parents has little effect.

We had a situation in our local school district where there was an harmful elementary school teacher. She delighted in tormenting the students. Students who had her came back as adults to testify against her. Parents asked for her removal. But the school board was unable to fire her. She finally retired.

I do agree with Matt that it would be better to free up public school boards and allow them to take action. Currently they are so hobbled by rules they can take little effective action.

Matt seems to be unaware that study after study has found that more money doesn't help public education. He is focusing on the wrong problem. For decades the amount per student has climbed twice as fast as inflation. Pushing more money into a broken system won't fix it.

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1 comment:

Eric Holcombe said...

His pilot project already exists: Washington DC public schools.