Dr. Matthew Ladner

 In the Aviator, director Martin Scorsese tells the story of Howard Hughes, had perhaps the biography of Howard Hughes been written by Ayn Rand. Hughes is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio as obsessively pushing the envelope forward in aviation, breaking both technical and legal barriers to progress.

Hughes’ pursuit of progress runs him into conflict with Pan-American airlines and their servile minion in Congress, Senator Brewster, played by Alan Alda. Brewster seeks to protect Pan American’s trans-Atlantic flight market, and uses the investigative powers of Congress in order to coerce Hughes. Consumers will be better served by a monopoly, Brewster explains, a position that Hughes finds “Un-American.”

Hughes asks Brewster “Do you really want to do this? Do you want to go to war with me?”

Brewster replies:

“It’s not me, Howard. It’s the United States government. We just beat Germany and Japan. Who the hell are you?”

This being a Hollywood movie, of course, our rugged individualist hero prevails, decisively crushing Senator Brewster and Pan-American in dramatic fashion in a Senate hearing showdown. Travelers enjoy the enormous benefits of aviation competition to this day.

Sadly, in the real word, other monopolies have rather more staying power than Pan-Am, including sadly our education laws. A fine line exists between stability and stagnation. In education policy, we have been content to sail well past that line. Our answer to all education problems was to put in more money. In 1960, the average spending per pupil was $375 (around $2300 in inflation adjusted dollars). Today, we spend close to $10,000 per pupil. Even after adjusting for inflation, spending per pupil in the public school system as more than tripled since the first baby-boomers attended schools.

Our education problems worsened despite the increased spending. Today, 38 percent of our 4th graders have failed to learn basic reading skills, and around a third of our high school students dropout of high school.  As today’s dropouts are largely those students who failed to learn to read in elementary schools, tomorrow’s dropouts are already in the pipeline.

Andrew Coulson recently noted that the last great innovation to transform American classroom instruction came with the invention of the chalkboard in 1801. Consider this level of stasis in comparison to the computer industry. Today, you could literally throw a dart in the computer section of a department store and have it land on a personal computer which is more powerful and cheaper than what was available two years ago. By comparison, the school system continues to plod along, always spending more but often producing less.

Dr. Matthew Ladner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute and an expert on educational reform and school choice. Dr. Ladner holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.
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