- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Public education organizations’ lurch left have left public schools in the lurch. With school’s resumption, it’s a good time to ask why.

There are many manifestations of this tilt — from political endorsements to policy proposals — but little acknowledgement, and even less explanation, of it. The economics of America’s public school system has not only created a leftward lean in organizations claiming to speak for public education, but the performance problems affecting the public school system itself.

No industry in America is more heavily subsidized than public education. Not even Defense. In 2005, the Education Department released a report estimating taxpayer funding for the 2004-05 school year at $536 billion for K-12. Another $373 billion went for higher education. Federal defense spending that year was $495.3 billion.

It is not just the amount of money, but its pervasiveness. The level of subsidization is as thorough as it is heavy. An entire publicly run school system from kindergarten through college means one essentially can go from pacifier to Ph.D. on the taxpayer’s tab.

The very uniqueness that there is a public education system is easily overlooked. What other area of endeavor creates an entirely state-run and subsidized system? Even in other areas where there is heavy government spending — agriculture for instance — you still find nothing like it.

The effect of all this government money is not what most would expect. The additional money does not begat increased performance, at least not in international comparisons, where America’s system continues to underperform despite higher per capita spending levels.

As tellingly and more important, it is not meeting domestic comparative standards either. Incredibly, many still opt out of a public educational system they have already paid for with their tax dollars — effectively paying twice in the case of private and home-schooling. Imagine an area where you would be willing to reject a prepaid service. How often are you willing to pay for service when you have a warranty?

At the higher education level, where the government subsidy attaches to the student (in the form of subsidized student loans and assistance) rather than the institution, private schools are even more plentiful. And if waiting lists are an indication — even more popular.

America’s public education system is based on a complete separation from America’s private sector. It rarely, if ever, pays its way. It is logical therefore that the hierarchy of public education organizations is so attuned to the political ideology of the left and its espousal of state-run and state-subsidized services.

These educational hierarchies revel in their separation from the private sector. Nothing is such anathema to them as the attempt, or even suggestion, that free market realities should have any impact on education. Yet of course these economic realities do nonetheless.

Subsidy creates excess supply. If that subsidization is not directly tied to performance, it also undermines the quality of the excess supply. Finally, if the subsidized entity is divorced from the profit motive the only way it maximizes its return is to minimize its output.

America’s public school system hits this trifecta. Its subsidization incentivizes an indifference to quality at best — its highest real economic return occurring where performance is the least. This explains parents, teachers, and students’ frequent desire to abandon the public education system.

Subsidization does not simply create a desire to retain the subsidy, but an outright need to do so. A system long insulated from competition — as demonstrated across the board in former communist states — is not easily able to withstand its introduction. Over a prolonged period, subsidies create not just their own mindset, but their own unique performance traits as well.

Extensive, thorough, and prolonged subsidization has reaped its inevitable result in America’s public school system. The education establishment’s attachment to the left is real. It is not just a philosophical one, but a practical one. No group in America is more affected by its relationship to government. No group is therefore less qualified to be an unbiased judge of the ideals and policies of conservatives and the left.

The public educational hierarchy realizes it needs the left more than any other group in America. It is time the rest of us realized it as well and ceased treating these organizations as unbiased, let alone selfless.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget in 2001-04 and as a congressional staff member in 1987-2000.

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