Might Freedom Fix A (Former) Teacher’s Broken Heart?

America is mostly free, but not as free as we should be. One of the tragedies of a crucial area of un-freedom in America is described in agonizing detail in a former PreK and kindergarten teacher’s explanation of why she just quit the job she has loved. The account makes up most of this Washington Post blog. A taste:

I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.

The teacher, Susan Sluyter, does not see the connection, however, between Americans’ un-freedom and the well-meaning, stupid, abusive authority that drove her from teaching. Like many, many good people in America, she supports the restriction on freedom. She wants the authorities to get smart and stop abusing her and her children. But she gives no hint that authorities will do that.

The un-freedom I mean is tax-supported, government-provided schooling. Like most Americans, most of them with the best of intentions, Susan Sluyter believes in public education. Her resignation letter states, “I am and always have been a firm believer in quality public education.”

I used to believe in government schooling, too, until I thought about it like an economist. I began to perceive a tension between “quality” and “public” in education. Government schooling (to use a term more descriptive than “public”) lacks the profit-and-loss feedback that human endeavor depends on for discovering what works well for other people, such as parents and children.

If the parents of Ms. Sluyter’s kindergarteners were more free—if they were free to spend the tax dollars they surrender to the Cambridge, Massachusetts school system as they see fit—then Ms. Sluyter and her similarly disgusted colleagues could say to those parents, “Your kids are being pressured and stressed and tested and measured and generally denied the healthy learning environment I know how to provide. I’m starting my own school that will do much better. Send your kids, and your tuition dollars, to my school; you’ll love the results.”

THEN we could begin to find out which is the better approach to pre-school, Ms. Sluyter’s or the assessment-, documentation-, training-, and mandate-heavy approach of today’s Cambridge Public Schools. I don’t know which would be better. No one does. That’s the sort of thing we have to find out by experience. And learning by experience is the great virtue (well, one of them) of a free market. All the providers of goods and services—PreK and kindergarten in this case—must always meet the challenge of anyone who thinks she can do it better. “The market is a discovery procedure” in which entrepreneurs search for better ways to please their customers—in this case parents—and the customers reward with profit those that do a good job for them, and punish with loss those that don’t.

(On second thought, I’m not sure the Cambridge Public Schools’ approach would get tried in a free market for education. As Ms. Sluyter describes it, it takes the teachers out of the classrooms so much, subjects the children to so much pressure, and micromanages the curriculum so impertinently that I doubt parents would voluntarily pay for it, or teachers would voluntarily offer it.)

In the current system of coercively funded government schooling, however, if Ms. Sluyter is correct that all the bureaucratic demands being heaped more heavily on teachers every year are foolish and destructive, there is no escape, not for the parents, not for Ms. Sluyter, not for the children (unless the parents pay for schooling twice by escaping to the private sector).

I take Ms. Sluyter her at her word that schooling in Cambridge was much better at the beginning of her career, before No Child Left Behind and all the subsequent bureaucratic decrees. And I don’t insist that free markets in education are the only solution for her. Maybe government schooling can be made better again. That’s possible. More enlightened bureaucrats might take charge. Those in authority might learn from Ms. Sluyter’s moving account and change their ways.

But relying on the political process to experiment on a captive clientele with taxpayers’ money and get things right seems unwise. The far safer route is freedom. In Cambridge and across the country we should forbid any governments to take parents’ money and tell teachers what to do with it. We should let the parents work it out directly with the teachers. Leave parents and teachers free to take a variety of approaches to PreK and kindergarten; leave parents and teachers free to choose among these approaches based on what they, not bureaucrats, find to be the merits.

 

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