“Shhh…do you hear that?”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Exactly.  Peace and quiet.”

Most parents have had this exchange as they head out for a quiet dinner after leaving their kids with a babysitter.

This came to mind as I was reading the Wall Street Journal report about two new books on education, Learning the Hard Way.  Here’s a flavor of the report:

Like so many debates in America today, the fight over public education is as polarized as it is consequential.

Spending more money is of course a perennial demand. Since 1970 America has more than doubled the real dollars spent on K-12 education. We have increased the number of teachers by more than a third, created legions of nonteaching staff, and raised salaries and benefits across the board. Yet fewer than 40% of the students who graduate from high school are ready for college. At the same time, students in other countries are moving ahead of us, scoring higher—often much higher—on international tests of reading, math and science skills.

The debate over education broadly divides into two groups. On one side are what might be called “traditionalists,” consisting largely of unions purporting to represent the interests of teachers. The members of this group argue that poverty is the great impediment to educational success and that we must lift people out of poverty if we are really to better educate our kids—and in the meantime we can’t expect schools to perform miracles. The traditionalists propose that we pay teachers more, hire more of them and spend more dollars on public education overall.

On the other side are what might be called “reformers” (some traditionalists refer to them as “deformers”). This group is made up largely of policy analysts skeptical of the status quo and young idealists, many of whom came to education through Teach for America, the nonprofit program that places talented college graduates in high-poverty, urban schools.

As this article rehashed much of the noisy K-12 education debate, I had a “Shhh…do you hear that?” moment regarding college-level education.

There isn’t much debate regarding college education.   It’s relatively quiet.   There’s some debate.  Thing like: Should ‘we’ pay for everyone to go to college?  Are some college degrees worth it? 

But we don’t get near the noise level with college level education debate as we do with K-12 education.   Why not?

Walter Williams gives us the answer in his classic May 2010 column, Conflict or Cooperation.  I’ve included the full text below.

Different Americans have different and often intense preferences for all kinds of goods and services. Some of us have strong preferences for beer and distaste for wine while others have the opposite preference — strong preferences for wine and distaste for beer. Some of us hate three-piece suits and love blue jeans while others love three-piece suits and hate blue jeans. When’s the last time you heard of beer drinkers in conflict with wine drinkers, or three-piece suit lovers in conflict with lovers of blue jeans? It seldom if ever happens because beer and blue jean lovers get what they want. Wine and three-piece suit lovers get what they want and they all can live in peace with one another.

It would be easy to create conflict among these people. Instead of free choice and private decision-making, clothing and beverage decisions could be made in the political arena. In other words, have a democratic majority-rule process to decide what drinks and clothing that would be allowed. Then we would see wine lovers organized against beer lovers, and blue jean lovers organized against three-piece suit lovers. Conflict would emerge solely because the decision was made in the political arena. Why? The prime feature of political decision-making is that it’s a zero-sum game. One person’s gain is of necessity another person’s loss. That is if wine lovers won, beer lovers lose. As such, political decision-making and allocation of resources is conflict enhancing while market decision-making and allocation is conflict reducing. The greater the number of decisions made in the political arena, the greater the potential for conflict.

Take the issue of prayers in school as an example. I think that everyone, except a maniacal tyrant, would agree that a parent has the right to decide whether his child will recite a morning prayer in school. Similarly, a parent has a right to decide that his child will not recite a morning prayer. Conflict arises because schools are government owned. That means it is a political decision whether prayers will be permitted or not. A win for one parent means a loss for another parent. The losing parent, in order to get what he wants, would have to muster up private school tuition while continuing to pay taxes for a school for which he has no use. If education were only government financed, as opposed to being government financed and produced, say through education vouchers, the conflict would be reduced. Both parents could have their wishes fulfilled by enrolling their child in a private school of their choice and instead of being enemies, they could be friends.

Conflict in education is just one minor example of how government allocation can raise the potential for conflict. Others would include government-backed allocation of jobs and education slots by race and sex, plus the current large conflict over government allocation of health services. Interestingly enough, the very people in our society who protest the loudest against human conflict and violence are the very ones calling for increased government resource allocation. These people fail to recognize or even wonder why our nation, with people of every race, ethnic group and religious group, has managed to live together relatively harmoniously. In their countries of origin, the same ethnic, racial and religious groups have been trying to slaughter one another for centuries. A good part of the answer is that in the United States, there was little to be gained from being a Frenchman, a German, a Jew, a Protestant or a Catholic. The reason it did not pay was because for most of our history, government played a small part in our lives. When there’s significant government allocation of resources, the most effective means of organizing for the gains are those proven most divisive, such as race, ethnicity, religion and region.

As our nation forsakes our founders’ wisdom of constitutional limitations placed on Washington, we raise the potential for conflict.

We don’t fight about college education because it is largely still based on the choices of those using it.  Students choose if they want to go.  Students and their parents decide where to apply.  Then they decide on a school and area of study that meets their preferences.

We do fight about K-12 education because many of the choices there are in the political arena.

The funding is in the political arena because we force folks, many who aren’t using the system, to fund it.

The curriculum is in the political arena.  In addition to parents, teachers, and administrators,  we have self-proclaimed education ‘experts’, academics, consultants, politicians, unions, environmental groups, family planning groups and other special interests actively seeking to inject their own preferences into the curriculum.

The administration of our schools are in the political arena.  We elect school boards.  Our state governments have some oversight and our Federal government has inserted itself into the mess, using our money as the “string” to get their preferences in.

The management of teachers is in the political arena.  Unions, parents, administrators and taxpayers are in this fight.

I believe much of the noisy debate in K-12 education would go away by bringing in more choices for parents while removing the political arena for parties who don’t even have children in the public schools.

It should be like this:  If you want a say in K-12 education, you should have a child in the school or you should start your own school and see, in the real world, if your way of doing things actually works better.  And parents get to decide.


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