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School Choice and "Creative
By David W. Kirkpatrick (March 13, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
School choice has many variations the most successful of which is the charter school movement. There were no such schools prior to 1992 when the first one opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, a school which still functions today. That lonely beginning has grown in sixteen short years to more than 4200 such schools, enrolling more than a million and a quarter students. While skirmishes with an adamant opposition continue it is highly unlikely that such a movement, which continues to expand yearly, will be stopped much less reversed.
One feature of charter schools, little noted by either advocates or opponents is that fact that some 500 such schools never got off the ground or were subsequently closed. Nor, if it is noted, is it recognized as the positive feature of the movement that it is.
For one thing, 500 not open while 4200 are ongoing means less than one in nine has failed to make it. This is a commendable, indeed remarkable, success rate. In the private economy it is sometimes noted that more than half of new startup business fail within a few years.
Even more importantly, the ability to close schools that are not sufficiently successful is perhaps the most noteworthy feature of any school choice program, as it is wherever free choice is an essential component, such as in the market system, free enterprise, and capitalism in general. This built-in feature of ongoing renewal and revival is what is lacking in monopolies in general and government monopolies in particular, and is what leads inevitably to their inefficiency at best and general incompetency at worst.
A prime example: the public school system. When Horace Mann in Massachusetts in the 1830s and 1840s was successfully promoting the creation of a public school system one of his main arguments was that more public schools would mean fewer prisons. Today we have some 100,000 public schools at the same time we lead the world with our nonpolitical prison population.
Even worse, he assured his public of the day that public schools were essential for the education of the general population. Yet studies have shown that, in both the United States and Great Britain the literacy rate was higher in Mann's day that it is today. And it is also true, for those willing to see, that, whatever positive successes the public schools may have, and there are some, they have never been able to educate the great majority of the students.
A century ago, for example, only 6% of the students advanced as far as high school. It wasn't until 1950 that half of the students in 5th grade seven years earlier were still there in 12th grade. Even today it's estimated that 30% of students drop out prior to graduating from high school and at least an equivalent percentage graduate without having the minimal academic skills necessary to function at more than a rudimentary level. In not just individual schools but in some large urban districts more than half the students drop out and many others fail to pass achievement tests.
This is not a common occurrence in charter schools, and there is no evidence to date that it will happen.
The reason is the built-in corrective feature where free choice is present. Joseph Schumpeter, in "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy," in 1942 labeled this characteristic "Creative Destruction." It is the main reason free systems ultimately triumph while simultaneously the main reason such systems are criticized. If individuals are free to reject a service or product those employed in that process may be adversely affected. Such change can be painful.
When a charter or nonpublic school fails, students leave and the staff has to look elsewhere for employment. In the monopolistic public school system students can't leave while the staff can use political pressure to oppose change. And they do. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the public school system has 10,000,000 employees. Since none of them wants to lose their job they pressure politicians to maintain the system by preserving the monopoly. There is no countervailing power defending the interests of students and taxpayers.
And you wonder why school reform fails.
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"The NEA (National Education Association) has been the single biggest obstacle to educational reform in this country. We know because we worked for the NEA." --Billy Boyton, former Nebraska NEA Executive Director, and John Lloyd, former Kansas NEA Executive Director, quoted, 3, Educational Freedom, Spring-Summer 1994
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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633