Six years ago in my former career, I spent two years as a public high school teacher in Baltimore , Maryland . The students who were compelled to attend were nearly 100% black, and a large percentage of them had difficult lives. Many came from families whose primary income was some form of public assistance. One or both parents were absent from many of the homes. An astonishing number of parents were dead of untreated cancers or the mortality associated with lifestyle choices. Some parents were MIAs due to drug abuse. I had no knowledge of most of the circumstances ' only that there was but one name on the parental contact list and that phone number rarely worked. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and even friends raised a lot of the students. Less than half gave real consideration of how to use an education to improve one's life. In fact, most students on the rolls didn't bother coming to school often or at all. Economically speaking, decisions of most students and many parents were 'high time preference' - gratification was not deferred in the interest of a better return in the future. Most choices were driven by 'how do I satisfy my wants this instant!'
Two hot topics of interest then were the deadlines instituted in welfare-to-work mandates (a mainstream media topic) and state takeovers of schools (teacher scuttlebutt). I fretted aloud about the first with a science teacher colleague ' asking what would happen to many of our students when their checks stopped coming. The majority of the students and their parents had no political awareness whatsoever. Weren't they in for a rude surprise when the checks stopped showing up in their mailboxes?!
My colleague gently admonished me to stop worrying. The checks would not stop coming. Special exceptions and exemptions would be found to make sure the money didn't stop. To summarize his points, the status quo was working. It was easier to mail in checks than to create job opportunities. The dysfunction was self-contained and the crime primarily self-predatory. For the people making the decisions, this was a low cost, low risk way of doing business. He was similarly skeptical about any state takeover of our high school. He surmised that though state officials didn't mind showing up and complaining about poor attendance and poor standardized test scores, the last thing they wanted was to be forced to stay at the school and work hands-on to improve the situation.
My colleague turned out to be right. Exemptions were found for welfare-to-work mandates and the checks kept coming. Also, though the Maryland State Board of Education rattled on and on about school takeover beginning in 1993 - eventually adding 97 schools to a list ' as of 2001 only three schools were actually taken over. Though the system could not even meet its own low standards, it allowed itself to continue. But when I began my study of economics and liberty two years later, the cards began to fall into place. As well as a rotten collectivist system can, the system is working as intended.
Though the schools are failing in their public relations mission of educating students, I would argue that the goals of the vested political establishment are more than satisfied. Though dismal percentages of young people ' with the worse numbers in urban communities - are acquiring knowledge and critical thinking skills, they are being successfully institutionalized. Students are tracked into mandated centralized locations, propagandized with a controlled message and being acclimated to the regimen of government authority and government services. Meanwhile, we members of the education bureaucracy receive money to pay our mortgages and car notes, and working parents have a childcare service. The cost is substantial, but for the economic and political elites who prosper with things as they are now, you manage a high-energy population with rebellious tendencies, including feared minorities, while securing bases of political support.
Returning to my colleague's earlier skepticism, I believe he is right that failing schools and failing communities are generally safe from a hostile takeover, even one under the cover of a humanitarian mission. For one thing, constrained by collectivist ideas, the governmental powers-that-be have little idea of how to make things better. And they know that if they did move in, they could be held responsible for a lack of results. In a way, it may be fortunate that the state has so little incentive to steal more from private individuals, move in, and squander even vaster sums of money. To take an example of how bad things could get from the world of foreign affairs, the Iraqi people, not unlike the present state of many urban communities in this country, toiled under a collectivist regime and were surrounded by a crumbling infrastructure. However, the billions of barrels of oil under their feet and the political dividends of destroying their leaders did invite the billion-dollar boondoggle of pillage and murder down upon them we are witnessing today.
Thick papers on improving the education delivered to our children spew out of think tanks by the pound. My own conclusion is to harness the invisible hand of human liberty and get the state out of the education business altogether. All of the decisions about how to educate children should be returned to the bulwark of human civilization: the family. As a parallel example, even with its restrictions and hurdles, the free market manages to provide Americans with an abundance and variety of food every day without fail. Meanwhile, individuals and families of individuals manage to select the diets that best satisfy their individual appetites. Contrast this with a model where menus would be decided by local boards or even central government boards. To hammer the point, imagine that everyone was required to get his or her lunch each day at the school cafeteria. Some people might like the school lunch. Some communities might even be able to bring in a rich cuisine. But think of the numbers of people that can't stomach the school spaghetti, that can't drink the milk because they are lactose-intolerant, or just hate the fruit cocktail in the standard menu. All of the experts in the world wouldn't convince you to keep eating this stuff. We'll just have to wait and see if the masses can similarly get sick of slavery.