How to reform the public schools

Bill Murchison

11/29/2005 12:05:00 AM - Bill Murchison

The story goes that James A. Garfield defined the ideal college education as Mark Hopkins (a Garfield mentor at Williams College) on one end of a log and a student on the other end. I like to muse on this piece of splendid wisdom whenever -- now for instance -- moans and complaints rise from an education establishment -- the one in Texas, for instance -- that somehow never has enough money.

 The Texas Supreme Court having just mandated an overhaul of the state's school finance system without simultaneously mandating a spending increase, the moans will rise fortissimo.

 Well, you know what? Tough. Particular schools might need special grants. As for the Texas system as a whole, we would do well to appropriate, instead of more cash, the justices' insight -- "[M]ore money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students."

 It sure doesn't -- in Texas or anywhere else, because if it did, the huge infusions of cash our public schools have enjoyed for the past four decades would have produced the best schools in the world. Instead, American public schools -- with honorable exceptions -- produce a deteriorating product: in turn, the product of a deteriorated cultural commitment to rigorous standards of study and performance.

 The Supreme Court invites the Texas Legislature, as it seeks next year to remodel the school finance system, to consideration of significant reforms. We can start by seeing whether Mark Hopkins' log can be found lying anywhere about; then we can take on a public school establishment described by the justices as "firmly entrenched and powerfully resistant to meaningful change."

 That is to say, before the Legislature proceeds to beef up the public school establishment, it should consider the fruits of competition.

 That would liven up the debate for sure. If there's anything the public school establishment hates, it's the idea of competition. Never mind that competition is the force that perennially drives the American economy. We really wouldn't want to see a tax-supported and government-regulated automobile industry. We'd prefer, I think, an industrial environment in which performance is rewarded and non-performance punished.

 Our inability to reward or discipline the public schools in accordance with their achievements, or lack of same, helps explain the schools' general mediocrity. We seem sometimes to suppose that the whole purpose of public education is providing jobs and perquisites to the teachers' unions and the education bureaucracy, when what you want is a school system that polishes young minds to as high a gloss as possible. No one pretends that Texas public schools are achieving this admirable goal. Not when, say, more than half of Hispanic students and 46 percent of black students never reach the 12th grade.

 How do we get where we need to be? Possibly by following the advice of a Hoover Institution task force that studied Texas public education, concluding, "The key to improving performance in Texas schools is a system that rewards schools, teachers and principals who reward student achievement." In other words, you base pay raises and other financial rewards on success. Imagine that!

 The task force promotes choice and deregulation in high degree: the expedients least loved by the rigid and lazy. For instance, why not let state vouchers follow -- yes, even to private schools! -- a student who has opted out of failing public schools? Whose success should have priority here -- the kid's or his old school's?

 Furthermore, the task force argues for wider resort to state-chartered schools that enjoy flexibility in teaching methods. Try 'em out; see what the marketplace says.

 Anyway, what an opportunity their Supreme Court has handed Texans -- the chance to show what the marketplace can do, educationally speaking. I wouldn't bet on that particular nettle's being grasped in Austin with full force and enthusiasm, given the power of the teacher unions and the public education lobby. Nor would I bet against the power of freedom to erode negativism and irrationality: even the negativism and irrationality of those hired, supposedly, to unmask, to undo, to drive away those dark forces.