Friday, September 17, 2010

The next chancellor of the D.C. Schools?

A friend has called my attention to a recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post by Courtland Milroy, praising Warren Buffet and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michele Rhee for offering a Leninist solution to the problem of urban education. (Before the reader takes umbrage with my use of the word "Leninist," he or she should note that Millroy himself concedes that Rhee is "sounding like Fidel Castro.")

Here's a summary of the Rhee/Buffet proposal, apparently endorsed, at least in principle, by Millroy:

"I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education's power to reverse generational poverty," Rhee wrote. "But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today's problems in urban education. 'Make private schools illegal,' he said, 'and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.' " (emphasis added)

It is perplexing to say the least that three otherwise very intelligent and public-spirited people would advocate such a solution, even in partial jest. For one thing the scheme, throwing people in jail for opening a private school --- would entail a frightening invasion of one our most basic civil liberties --- the right of families to choose religious schools for their children. See Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925). The plan would also lead to an exodus from Washington D.C. of families able to move elsewhere, unless Buffet/Rhee/Millroy would also ban such out-migration, thereby further eroding the city's precarious tax base and undermining funding for education.

More fundamentally, such a plan contravenes one of the basic postulates of a free society, namely, that decentralized competition, and not coercively-imposed state-monopoly, produces the highest quality product at the lowest possible cost. To be sure, there is a strong argument for state subsidies of education, because individual families cannot capture the full benefits of investments they make in the children's education. Plus, certain imperfections in the capital market can prevent families of modest means from borrowing the funds necessary to fund, say, a high quality K-12 education. However, even a compelling argument for state subsidy does not justify coercive state control over the means of producing education. All of us would support state subsidies that help the poor purchase necessities like food and clothing. Does that mean, however, that the State must also own the nation's farms and grocery stores, installing a Chancellor of Nutrition to oversee the "Foodstuffs Sector?" Most would chuckle at such an Orwellian proposal.

Indeed, imagine if, instead of education, we were discussing the production of software. Would Buffet, Rhee or Millroy argue that the State should outlaw private software companies, take over Microsoft, and install the firm as a national software monopoly? Would we rely on an elected or appointed "National Software Board" to oversee the development, production, distribution and marketing of software? Of course not. Indeed, most applauded when the national government filed suit against Microsoft, which had obtained a monopoly by providing a product that consumers preferred and then maintained its monopoly position by employing practices that, while questionable, did not employ the sort of state coercion that Rhee, Buffet and Millroy seem to applaud.

Simply put, the problem with our educational system is not too much freedom --- the problem is a deficit of freedom. Our university system --- a highly competitive mix of public and private colleges and universities --- is the envy of the world, drawing hundreds of thousands of foreign students. (A recent study by the Times of London found that 18 of the world's top 25 universities are American. The top five are private universities.) Does anyone think we could improve the system by banning private colleges and universities and assigning students by lot to the remaining public universities? (Recall in this connection that our best private universities train many of the faculty who then teach and perform research at our public universities.) If not, then why adopt such a strategy for K-12 education?

While Millroy, Rhee and Buffet press for greater centralization, states like Minnesota and Wisconsin have moved in the other direction, promoting public school choice and facilitating the formation of charter schools, the latter of which advertise in an effort to compete with more standard "public schools." Under this approach, state money follows the student; schools that fail see their enrollments fall as students choose other schools, be they traditional "public" or charter schools. Plus, contrary to the Rhee/Buffet/Millroy plan, Minnesota and Wisconsin actually allow private schools to operate in the state! Moreover, between 2004 and 2009, public high school graduation rates in Minnesota's largest city, Minneapolis, rose from 54.5 percent to 76.3 percent. Not surprisingly, there is no movement in Minnesota to ban private schools or charter schools. Unlike Rhee, Buffet and Millroy, Minnesotans apparently understand what the Supreme Court said more than 80 years ago:

"The fundamental theory of liberty on which all governments of this union repose excludes any general power of the state to stadardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925).

Enough said!