How do we fix education?

Marketplace Staff Nov 1, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We’ve got less than a week left of nasty campaign ads and endless speculation over what the new Congress might look like. And you’ll notice the rhetoric’s mostly what the politicians want to talk about. Not the real agenda of what voters what to hear.

Education will be on the ballot in a dozen states. Everything from school funding in Alabama, to minimum spending levels in Michigan, to college scholarships in Wyoming. Once again, we’ve got Marketplace commentators David Frum and Robert Reich with us.

We begin, David, with you this week. Do you think education has improved since the No Child Left Behind Act?

FRUM: Certainly it’s true that today we have better information about what the deficiencies in American education are thanks to the testing initiatives the President and the Congress passed since 2000. But while we have a better grasp on the problem, I don’t think we’ve advanced at all toward the solution. I don’t think there is any way that we can fix education in the way that we have tried to do over the past two decades, which is essentially through concentrating power in the hands of states. The answer to improving the quality of this product, the quality of every product, is through competition.

RYSSDAL: Bob Reich, let me back it up for a minute and go with a more fundamental question. Do you think education in this country is broken?

REICH: Yes, it’s broken. The test results show it’s broken. The fact that inequality is widening in America at such an alarming rate also suggests that a lot of Americans just are not getting the education they need. You know, I agree, David, that or educational system doesn’t work the way we are now financing it, the way we’re now organizing it. It’s ludicrous at a time when more and more people are living geographically with people who share their same kind of income level, we still rely for at least 50 percent of our grade school and primary and secondary schools on local property taxes. But also if we want talented women and men to go into teaching, we’ve got to have to pay them enough to attract them. The law of supply and demand is not repealed at the schoolhouse door.

RYSSDAL: David Frum, can you pay enough to fix the schools in this country? Or is there another root problem?

FRUM: Well, the United States certainly pays an awful lot for education. One of the tragic rules of education is the more you pay the worse results seem to be that you get. I’m sitting here in the District of Columbia where we pay some of the highest prices to educate children in the entire country — maybe the very highest price, in excess of $10,000 per child — and get the very, very worst results, I think, in just about the entire country. I agree with Bob about the importance of getting talented people into the teaching profession. But it is even more important to get untalented people out. And that is something that a vast structure of union rules, state rules prevent.

The reason we used to rely so much on local funding was because we counted on local funding to create local control to empower parents and put them in charge of their own schools. I think part of the idea behind the President’s No Child Left Behind initiative was to say, “OK, well, parents have lost powers to the local bureaucracies. Let us take power away from the local bureaucracy to a state level, or even a federal level, where wise people can do the work that parents are no longer able to do. I think we can describe that approach as a failure. And if we can’t rely on local political control, we have to rely on markets and competition and choice.

RYSSDAL: Bob Reich, what’s the anwer to getting local control of schools back into the local cities?

REICH: Well, I believe in accountability. But I think we’ve gone way, way overboard. In an attempt to make our schools accountable to parents, and to put some pressure on schools, all we’re doing is teaching how to take tests. You know, on the issue of competition, market competition, let me make a confession here. Because, years ago, I proposed something in the Wall Street Journal and I got dumped on from all sides. Which makes me think that maybe my idea was pretty good. I proposed then a progressive voucher, and it would go something like this (and David I’d be interested to see what you think):

I mean, poor families, say, get $15,000 per kid. Let’s say rich families get $3,000 per child. And the families do have an option as to how to utilize these vouchers. If you don’t like the word vouchers, call them liverwurst. Whatever fits. And they can use them at charter schools. They can use them at any school that meets minimum requirements. But you see, if poor families got $15,000 per child, immediately kids from poor families would become very attractive to any school. I mean, competition is fine as long as the poorest kids with the biggest learning and social problems are not excluded from the good schools, in fact, are attractive to the good schools. And I think my progressive voucher system — modesty aside — is the answer.

RYSSDAL: David, I’ll put it right to you. What do you think about vouchers and Bob’s idea?

FRUM: I think the idea of vouchers is so precious that I would certainly be willing to pay. If that’s what the Democratic price were for vouchers, I would certainly be willing as a policy maker to pay it. I mean, Bob is quite convinced that what will happen as a result of his progressive vouchers is that you will have all of the worst students in the same schools as all of the best students because the schools will be eager for the $15,000 check. It may be that, in fact, specialized schools spring up which are full of $15,000 kids who need extra help. And so long as we have an educational market that is open enough to initiative to allow for that possiblity, as well as the one that Bob anticipates, that I think is real freedom. And that is the thing that will lead us to the best results.

RYSSDAL: All right, thank you both.

FRUM: Thank you.

REICH: Thank you, Kai. Thanks, David.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.