Massie, DiVos, and Fixing Education

So public education has a new queen.  Trump’s new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has created quite the stir.  In addition Congressman Thomas Massie has proposed to eliminate the Department of Education.  All in the same week.  The only way to digest all this, is with some 21 year Balvenie.  Given the nature of these events, I believe this gives us a fresh opportunity to consider old ideas with new ears.

Centralizing power has never gone well for any nation, and the US is no different.  This hoarding has particularly crippled education for over 30 years.  With that in mind, there are two things plaguing our public education system.  The first is its dependency on taxpayer money, and the second, which is related to the first, is education’s inability to make the needed decisions and changes in order to truly be successful in the long run.

One comment before I get any further.  It is important to note, that changing the funding model, does not mean the money disappears.  Quite the contrary.  As you will see from my proposal, it will revert money back into the hands of those to whom it matters the most.  Consequently money will come directly from the local key players (parents, industry partners, and charities), instead of taking the inefficient route through government bureaucracies redistributing the funds back to the local schools.

My stance on this subject makes it tough to have a genuine dialogue on, without being cast as a demon or at minimum some sort of heartless orc, but never-the-less just maybe the timing is right.  Part of the challenge here, is that people’s lives are wrapped up in this funding model, from teachers to administrators to most importantly children.  Tax dollars have gone towards public education for over 200 years, why stop this funding mechanism now?  For some they would not know what to do without taxpayer support, and for others this notion is just plain anathema.  All I ask is just give me a fair hearing.

Plague #1

So funding mechanisms matter.  How you fund something will inevitably impact the outcomes.  If I was going to buy a car, and I had no other additional financial help beyond my personal income, the dealership would negotiate with me with that in mind.  If I brought my parents with me, well the dealership now sees additional resources, and would shift their negotiation stance.  Now what if I had a pre-approved bank loan?  How about if I had a rich uncle?  Now that changes everything.  This is the same with education.  One of the reasons why education cost has skyrocketed over the years, is this very phenomenon.  Multiple pockets of government money, multiple funding players, and little accountability.

So the first part of my proposal is this: first remove distant and arcane pricing models from local education, secondly remove the inefficient funding loop that taxes money out of a community, ships it to DC, and then at the mercy of their infinite wisdom bequeaths it back to the local education institutions; and lastly remove federal regulations that have only placed chokeholds on local administrators limiting their capacity to create a truly student first education environment.  These changes will free the student to choose their school, it will give local teachers freedom in the classroom along with re-energize their classroom environment, and allow the administrators the freedom they need to create a truly community centered education institution.  The way we have it right now, policy is dictated by the state and federal government, which affects everything even down to our local schools’ bathroom policies.  This has to change.

Plague #2

I remember when Napster first came on the scene, in fact I may have used Napster to download a little MC Hammer.  Of course, people used Napster because it was free, but I think more importantly, they used Napster because it made music available to the consumer on the device of their choice.  Do you remember the music industry’s response to Napster?  Instead of buying Napster and figuring out how to monetize it, they sued Napster.  They wanted Napster to disappear.  The music industry looked at Napster as a threat, instead of an opportunity.  Because of the music industry’s push against technology, they missed a huge opportunity.  Think about it.  Who led the way in bringing music online?  A computer company.  A company that had no interest in producing music, yet had every instinct in distributing music efficiently to the masses.  My point here is not so much to argue that education needs to be more eager to adopt technology.  Rather I am drawing out the resistance to adopt technology, as a parallel example to education’s resistance to change their funding models.  Education’s funding models have brought so much havoc on the system and ultimately on student outcomes.  Yet education cost continue to skyrocket, student loan debt is over $1.3 trillion, and education outcomes have not risen in 30 plus years.

It does no good to just talk about what is wrong, but we should also strive to be solution oriented.  I just wiped out government education funding model, now where should the money come from?  Well here is my threefold funding model proposal: first put the money back in parents hands, so they are in a position to make the best decision for their children; secondly education needs to do a far better job partnering with industry; and lastly education needs to continue to partner with charities and private donors, but with real accountability.  The nature of education will always have a “ministry” component.  Meaning education will always be serving people who can’t afford it.  The government will never be able to fix this problem, and in fact I would argue that the government has created more problems than it solved trying to fix this problem (but this is another subject for another time).  Because of this “ministry” component, depending on a particular institution’s mission, education will generally need to raise money to backfill for those who cannot afford it.  My kids go to a Christian school, and as part of the school’s mission, they will not turn away anyone who cannot afford the school’s modest tuition.  The school still has to pay its bills, which means it needs the support of donations to fill this particular need and “ministry”.  Charities, such as churches, foundations, and various non-profits, are important in education’s ability to take care of those who cannot afford education.  Applying this threefold model will place the parents and the students back in control of their choices and at the center of how education is structured.  In addition it will also clean up all the inefficiencies created by federal regulation and redistribution practices.

For any business, charity, government organization, it is challenging to think outside the box when things are not working.  This is particularly the case when discussing revenue streams and funding models.  Those organizations who are willing to admit when things are not working and are willing to make major changes needed to right the ship, will require the kind of courage that, as C.S. Lewis argues, will protect all virtue.  Our education was once the greatest system in the world.  When you lose courage, you lose virtue, and this wipes out any capacity to make the kind of changes that our education system so desperately needs.

Gabriel Rench