I Know It When I See It

I got into an exchange about a number of things, including education, with Brutus in the comments section of this post at Cafe Hayek.

The exchange began over how to cut Federal government spending.  I suggested comparing what the Federal government spends money on to what it is empowered to spend money on.  This would reveal that spending on things like the Department of Education is outside the scope of the Federal government.

Brutus, taking a utilitarian approach basically asked, what if Federal education spending is doing some good?

To me that’s like asking, what if forcibly extracting kidneys from folks for organ donation does some good? (Thanks to Steven Landsburg for that view).  Most people would be against this in principle and few would buy the utilitarian (“greater good”) argument because people generally intuitively recognize that we have rights to have a say with what we do with our bodies.

But, I’m still usually willing to have the utilitarian argument with folks because I think most arguments for government involvement fail on those terms as well.

I made the point to Brutus that no measure I know of shows improvement in the quality of education since the Department of Education was elevated to cabinet status in 1979 and there is evidence that grade inflation has occurred in response to meeting the Federal guidelines, thereby lowering the quality of education.

I also pointed out that the most important thing in education is parental accountability, which is my pet theory and could be wrong, but I haven’t yet seen convincing evidence or reasoning that it is wrong.

Brutus responded that my parental accountability theory is “factually incorrect”, he thinks it’s hard to measure educational success “on paper”, but he knows “a good or bad school when I see it.”

I agree it’s hard to measure educational success “on paper”, which is an argument against the Department of Education which tries to do just that (e.g. No Child Left Behind).

I agree with his last point.  I also know a good or bad school when I see it.  Most parents do as well. That’s why parental accountability is important and strong.  Parents don’t need someone in DC to tell them this.

He then asks, what do you do about failing schools?  My answer: address root causes, not symptoms.  Reward success instead of failure.

Is it any wonder that bad schools seem to be in areas in that serve low income people, people who have little choice but to send their kids to those schools because they cannot afford to move or send their kids to private schools?  The parents who can afford to make a choice have, they move to a better district or send their kids to private.

What’s left are just enough students and an established tax/funding base to keep the administrators who run the district poorly in power (root cause).  Often such monumental failures attract more dollars to “fix” the problem and further empower the corrupt administrators (rewarding failure).

Addressing the root cause means doing something to let parents have more say than politicians in school outcome.


5 thoughts on “I Know It When I See It

  1. Hi Seth,

    I have no problem with the voucher approach – in fact, I had once written a paper supporting it in the early stages. My problem is that the results are mixed. As much as I like theory, the data dictates my views…


    • Hi Brutus – Thanks for the comment. As you mentioned before, the results are hard to put on paper. What I find missing in evaluations of voucher programs is whether the parents feel their kids are better off. They usually use the same measures as DC – test scores.

  2. Okay, fair point. The measurement issue really makes it difficult for me to arrive at any hard conclusions. In the case of education, I end up with “on the one hand this, on the other that.” So, despite reading too much on the subject, I tend to not discuss it…I have heard convincing arguments on both sides. Making things worse is that since everyone went to school, everyone is an expert.

  3. I just noticed the name of your blog. Did you know that Ronald Reagan ate dinner in front of the TV on most nights? He always had good quotes, but not sure that he lived by them….

    • Brutus – Thanks for the comments. If you could point me to convincing arguments in favor of the Federal Department of Education, I’d like to take a look at those.

      You touch on an important concept about not knowing. We all have a little power in the way things go in politics (our vote), but we have a hard time figuring out the consequences of our actions. When you buy a candy bar and don’t like, you don’t buy it again. When you vote for something that isn’t working, you can be convinced to keep voting for it because you’re just not sure. That’s one of the weaknesses of a political process over a market process.

      Regarding Reagan, I don’t think this quote is evidence of him not living by what he said. I don’t think Reagan was saying we should all eat at a dinner table, I believe the point of the quote is that we should talk it out. He was very good at putting vivid images into his phrases to bring them to life.


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