Less than 24 hours before Snowmaggedon was scheduled to hit Washington, D.C., libertarians and other school choice supporters gathered to hear the latest evidence that public education needs to move into the 21st century.
The event, held at Capitale in downtown D.C., was one of Reason.com and Reason Foundation’s three pre-National School Choice Week events held across the country.
Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason.com, sees school choice as a natural issue for libertarians because it “fits with libertarian emphases on individual choice, autonomy, and responsibility.”
“The traditional public school system, K through 12, which is a $600 billion a year industry, is filled with abuses, waste, and misdirected attention,” Gillespie added.
He also took aim at the D.A.R.E. program–Drug Abuse Resistance Education–as an example of public education’s failures: Gillespie cited studies that found the program didn’t decrease drug abuse and may have increased it. Yet, Gillespie said, nearly 50 percent of schools still use the program.
Lisa Snell, Reason Foundation’s director of education and child welfare, pointed to the Los Angeles Unified School District as a poster child for traditional public education gone wrong. The district recently built a massive new school building but had to relocate five existing schools into it because of declining enrollment.
“The money is in no way connected to the enrollment of the students. The money does not follow the kid,” Snell said. “The full staff still gets paid even if the kids don’t show up. There is no connection at all between the services that students get, where students actually enroll in school or want to go, and the way that we allocate and distribute resources for education in the United States.”
Or, to put it simply, she added, “You can build it. Will children learn?”
As it turns out, Snell explained, many high-performing schools, typically public charter schools, are located in strip malls, old churches or even warehouses. The building itself seems to have little to do with the learning.
The root of the problem stems from traditional public education’s unwillingness to adapt. We live in an age of mass customization, so why not have that in education?
“It’s a movement away from mass production, from industrial production, where everything is the same and the way that you make things cheaper and better is by producing lots of the same thing, to a world in which we are producing hyper individualized and personalized things,” Gillespie said.
He likened the current education system to buying a car that still performs like it was built in the 1970s, but at an increased cost: “We are basically spending 200 percent more for a product that is circa 1970.” Spending at all levels of government on K-12 public education is up nearly 200 percent, but student achievement is flat.
Snell joked that the solution was to send America’s children to a foreign country.
“The Unites States spends more than almost any country in the world on public education … and [the OECD] found that schools that spend 50 percent of the what the United State spends basically get the same performance or even more, so one of the solutions might be that we could just send kids to Estonia because they are spending a lot less money than us and they are performing better than us,” she said.
The real solution, both speakers agreed, was to embrace the changes that are occurring in the economy and apply them to public education. Just as companies like Uber and inventions like 3D printers are enabling personalization and customization in the economy, charter schools, virtual schools, vouchers, education savings accounts, and other forms of school choice are revolutionizing education and giving students and parents the ability to customize and personalize education.
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