The Washington Times
August 15, 2005

Washington Times Op-ed — Choice answers education questions

by J. Michael Smith
HSLDA President

Most people agree that we live in a country that is based on a free-market economy. Despite some imperfections, America has grown wealthy largely because of this system.

The system works best when new ideas are allowed to compete freely in the marketplace. Old, outdated and unresponsive systems act as a drag on the economy because over the long term, they need to be heavily subsidized once they become uncompetitive.

How much money would the country waste if it were decided to prop up every firm in America that loses money or does not perform a useful function? We soon would be bankrupt.

Regrettably, in one of the most important areas of society -- education -- competition is being stifled, and an outdated system is being maintained with vast sums of taxpayers' funds. The average public school spends $7,000 per year per child just in operating expenses. Once the buildings are included, the true cost is much higher.

Any activity that has a monopoly and is subsidized has no incentive to improve its products. The price can go up and the quality can fall without too many negative results for the monopoly.

Imagine if there were only one car manufacturer in America and cars could not be imported from abroad. How many people believe that one firm would produce a modern, advanced vehicle at a low price?

Isn't it more likely that the opposite would happen? The price would rise because most people need cars and would be forced to buy from this company. In addition, the quality would fall as the company amassed large profits because there would be no incentive to innovate.

Unfortunately, public education is following this pattern. Price is rising, and quality is falling.

Funding for public schools has been increasing steadily over the past 10 years while results have been either falling or stagnating. It is a predictable result from a system that receives large subsidies and fights competition.

In this system, private- and home-school families are penalized because they are freely choosing a private education they are forced to pay for twice: once for the public system they do not use and again for their own education. Tax relief for those making this choice would begin to level the playing field.

The extent of the opposition to alternatives to public education can be found primarily within the education establishment, with the National Education Association leading the charge. Most people might reasonably conclude that if you have a good product and a level playing field, then you have nothing to fear from competition. However, if you know the flaws with your product, then you will do almost anything to hold onto your privileged position and reject competition.

The NEA appears to be in the grip of this type of thinking. Recently, the NEA allowed its Web site to be used by the head custodian at a public elementary school in Illinois as a vehicle to attack home-schooling (www.nea.org/espcolumns/dv040220.html).

The author makes the usual arguments that only trained professional teachers can educate children successfully and that home-schooled children will be poorly socialized. Unfortunately for the janitor, there is no research to support his position. In fact, the data point in the opposite direction.

The article concludes with this statement: "[Parents] would be wise to help their children and themselves by leaving the responsibility of teaching math, science, art, writing, history, geography and other subjects to those who are knowledgeable, trained and motivated to do the best job possible."

Our answer, at the Home School Legal Defense Association, is that parents fit this description perfectly. They are in the best position to educate their own children.

What's wrong with leveling the playing field so parents can choose among various methods of education? Could it be that the public system would be transformed and forced to raise its standards if parents had viable options among public, private and home schools?

Freedom works for home-school families, and it can work for everyone else. It is possible to have an education system ready for the challenges of the 21st century if we allow parents to choose what is in the best interests of their children. That means introducing competition that creates a level playing field for all forms of education.

Michael Smith is the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He may be contacted at 540/338-5600; or send e-mail to media@hslda.org.

 Other Resources

Family Times Column