A Manifesto Of Ignorance

By Joseph Calhoun

Allison Benedikt thinks sending your kids to private school makes you a bad person:

You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad-but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation's-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what's-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.

I am not an education policy wonk: I'm just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. (Yes, rich people might cluster. But rich people will always find a way to game the system: That shouldn't be an argument against an all-in approach to public education any more than it is a case against single-payer health care.)

First of all, full disclosure: I have one daughter who attended a very, very good public magnet high school. She has attended private universities (SAIC undergrad and U of Chicago grad school in the fall) thanks to scholarships, my generosity and her hard work. 

So, I believe in public schools when they work but I wasn't about to sacrifice my daughter's education for the sake of Allison Benedikt's fantasy about how the world really works. If she hadn't had the opportunity to attend DASH, I would not have hesitated to send her to a private school. 

There are many ways to improve the education system but Ms. Benedikt's "manifesto" is just nonsense. The very problem with public education right now is that there isn't sufficient competition. We have an entire division at the Justice Department that does nothing but try to find and punish companies who act monopolisitically. And for good reason; monopolies produce worse outcomes at a higher cost. Frankly, it is hard to believe that the current system could be worse but following Ms. Benedikt's advice would surely accomplish what seems nearly impossible.

The opposition to education reform has come primarily from the teachers' unions and whether they know it or not, teachers are only hurting themselves by resisting reform. Sweden has a universal voucher system (as does Denmark) that works quite well with public schools competing freely with for profit ones. The key to making education reform work well is to have the money follow the child rather than have the child follow the money. Yes, there would have to be a system that prevents all the smart, well behaved kids from clustering but that should not be that hard to accomplish. From the teachers' viewpoint it would be an improvement over the current system as well. Teachers would have a larger range of options as to where and how they want to work and good ones would likely see a rise in their pay. The only teachers hurt by such a system are ones that probably shouldn't be teaching anyway. The Swedish switch to vouchers was fully supported by the teachers union. Why unions in the US don't support such a system is not a mystery. Right now they only have to bargain with the public school system run by politicians they helped elect. It isn't exactly an adverserial relationship and the only constituencies that get screwed are the tax payer and the kids stuck in failing schools. 

As a country, we have an obligation to educate our children. There are pretty obvious social benefits to government being involved in making sure that happens. But there is no reason to believe that the current public education system is the only way to accomplish that goal. In fact, it is failing pretty miserably right now with a near monopoly. Moving to a complete monopoly would only make a bad system even worse. Vouchers are one option but there are plenty of others that would provide more competition and improve outcomes. My suggestion would be for the Federal government to close the Education Department except for the part that prints checks. Every child deserves a proper education but we don't have to wait generations for that to happen. All it takes is the guts to take on the teachers unions and force change. I'm not holding my breath.


Joseph Calhoun is CEO of Alhambra Investment Partners in Miami, Florida. He can be reached at jyc3@alhambrapartners.com

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