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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 21, 2011 8 years ago

Scrap public education; make all of it private

Last week provided great political-media entertainment in our little part of Florida. It also brought to light the fatal flaw of public education.
by: Matt Walsh Editor

Last week provided great political-media entertainment in our little part of Florida. It also brought to light the fatal flaw of public education.

Gov. Rick Scott visited our office in Sarasota. And during a one-hour interview with editors and reporters — a session he later repeated with the editorial board down the street at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune — Scott said he wants to funnel more of our university tax dollars toward science, technology, engineering and math to help push his agenda of adding 700,000 private-sector jobs in seven years. And then, in a short breath after expressing that strategy, the governor added, “... While anthropology is really interesting, there are no jobs” in it.

What followed was totally predictable. The reactions of newspaper editorial boards, columnists, pundits, tenured university anthropology professors and anyone who took an anthropology class went blooey. Just imagine the clucking you would hear if you threw that proverbial fox into the chicken house. The cacklers were beside themselves.

Daniel Ruth, chief cynic pundit at the St. Petersburg Times, referred to Scott as “Mister Chips of the pocket protector set,” “Our Miss Brooks of biology,” “Tallahassee's Professor Kingsfield of chemical engineering,” “the Dumbledore of computer science.” The Sarasota Herald-Tribune headlined pundit Tom Lyons' column with “The governor clearly needs to be schooled,” and another of its columnists, Eric Ernst, made an analogy that the governor was following a temptation “to turn the University of Florida into a giant trade school.” The headline on Ernst's treatise was: “Leave education to those who understand it.”

It was amusing to watch. This went on for seven days, culminating with five letters to the editor in the Sunday Herald-Tribune and 15 letters from University of South Florida anthropology majors, all ripping into Scott.

One of the letter writers, Deborah Landes, had it right. She wrote:

“Clearly, if the governor is sincere about wishing to create employment and foster entrepreneurship in our beautiful state, not to mention saving the taxpayers a bundle, the solution is to close down the entire state university system.”

She then said she was being satirical, a writing device she learned in a liberal arts college.

Fact is, she is right. Shut it down.

No matter how much more tax money the governor funnels into educating more engineers and scientists, the effects will be marginal at best. That's the history of Florida public education. In truth, Florida's public-education system — from pre-school to the universities — needs to be blown up and wiped out. End it. All education should be private-sector driven. No government involvement whatsoever.

Stay with me here. There is a rational order to this idea.

Scott's single-minded focus
First, however, go back to Gov. Scott and his desires to educate more 21st century techies and engineers.

If you allow yourself to look beyond the cackling over the governor's anthropology comment, and think through what Scott said he wants to do with university funding, you have to credit Scott on one level. Credit him for sticking to what he vowed to do in his election campaign: He said he would work tirelessly to create a framework and climate in Florida that would result in the creation of 700,000 new jobs in seven years. And if you know Scott, or have observed him even in his first year, you know by now the man is always incredibly focused on a mission.

He was that way as CEO of Columbia-HCA. He vowed as CEO of that company to revolutionize the health-care industry and bring down the cost of health care for the good of consumers. And he did. During the gubernatorial campaign, few people noticed the fact when Scott became CEO of Columbia Hospitals in 1987, health care inflation in the United States was 18%. By 1997, when Columbia-HCA was the largest hospital company in the world, health care inflation had dropped to 0.2%.

Hospital experts will tell you this occurred because of Scott's single-minded focus and belief that quality health-care could be delivered at a lower cost. It's worth noting, too, that during the period that Scott's company reduced health-care inflation, Columbia-HCA's patient-satisfaction ratings were among the highest in the industry. Data showed that Columbia-HCA delivered quality healthcare at the lowest cost in the industry.

This is all worth repeating because this is what Scott is trying to repeat as governor — lower the cost of government while improving Florida's economy and creating new jobs.

So if that is his mission, you can understand that the governor is going to use whatever tools and authority available to him as governor to achieve his 700,000-jobs goal. And clearly, Scott has determined that one of the avenues to his goal is to do whatever he can to develop a readily available and trained work force that will attract entrepreneurs and businesses to Florida.

The right kind of work force is crucial. Here's an explicit example: Norm Worthington, CEO and founder of Sarasota-based Star2Star Communications, told a chamber of commerce audience recently that his company has made recruiting new talent a core competency of Star2Star — all because his firm has encountered a critical dearth of the right work force skills in the company's home territory and in Florida.

So maybe Scott pricked the feelings of Florida's anthropologists and the sensitivities of the liberal media. But in the bigger vision of creating jobs, Scott has made a judgment that if Florida is going to compete economically with the states that have prospered with job growth, Florida needs more scientists, technology wizards, engineers and mathematicians.

You really can't argue against the approach. More of those specialists in the state's work force would help Florida's economy.

The fatal flaws of public schools
But now to the larger point: Public education is so flawed that, in spite of Scott's intentions and efforts to change the university system's focus (and we would urge him to stay on his course), the likelihood of his achieving dramatic effects are slim. Public education, at every level, is simply destined to mediocrity at best.

Sure, there can be and are pockets of excellence in Florida's public education systems. But because of the constitutional mandate to provide “a uniform” system of free public schools; the fact 160 legislators control and manage the tax dollars that are funneled to Florida's public schools; and the fact individual taxpayers have virtually no control over how their educational tax dollars are spent, you end up with what we have.

No matter how good some of Florida's universities may be in certain disciplines, the perception and reputation of Florida public schools and universities nationally are not those of being among the country's best, not by a long shot. And for deserved reasons; they aren't.

Part of the fatal flaw: By constitutionally requiring a “uniform system” of elementary and high schools, every school is required to provide the same resources and levels of instruction to every child — essentially a form of collectivism.

But this can never work; no two children are “uniform.” Think of your own families, and the different educational and developmental needs and interests of your own children. A uniform public-school system can try, but it can never adequately meet the needs of every child. Nor would taxpayers pay what would be required to meet every child's special needs.

To make matters worse, every year 160 legislators in Tallahassee micromanage Florida's schools and universities, dictating every aspect of how Florida's schools must operate and how much money will be spent and where it will be spent. Imagine your business taking orders on how to operate from 160 legislators, many of whom are driven by doing what is popular (to get re-elected) or by special interests who seek to shift the system in their favor. What a nightmare.

In this structure, individual taxpayers are virtually powerless over how their money is used. Just consider Gov. Scott's “STEM” initiatives. If, say, your college-age student has the passion and skills to be a great anthropologist, you would want him or her to have access to the same resources afforded to engineering students. So who is Gov. Scott to decide what is the best way spend educational tax dollars? We elect him and all legislators to use their best judgment, but their judgments can't possibly line up with the judgment and interests of the 13 million parents and students in Florida.

So letter-to-the-editor writer, Deborah Landes, was right — even though she wasn't serious. The best way to improve education in Florida would be to turn all of it over to the private sector. Eliminate school taxes, and let parents, grandparents, educators and business people decide on their own how to educate Florida's school-age and college-age children.

The power of the free market would be astonishing. Schools and universities would pop up to serve every level of need and specialization and every level of ability to pay. Just as we have cars that range from affordable to expensive, so it would be with schools.

Competition would drive up the quality of education and drive down the cost. Accountability, which is so hard to effectuate now, would be instant. If a school failed to meet its customers' needs, it would go out of business. Teachers would be compensated on the basis of skill and performance. No more guarantees of tenure or union collectivism.

The use of technology would explode, revolutionizing the way children are taught. And parents would have control over how their money is spent.

The large masses who believe public education is the only way, gasp in horror at this idea. What about the poor? How will they afford education? Imagine how the cost of housing would fall without school taxes; those savings would go to consumers. Americans' generosity would continue to make its way to those who couldn't pay their way.

What about the parents who don't care about their kids and won't pay to educate them? We have them now. And we will always have them.

But think more about the millions and millions of parents in Florida who want to see their children succeed. Think about the freedom and educational entrepreneurism they would feel if the $22 billion a year that is spent on Florida's public education were left in the hands of individual Floridians.

Give Gov. Scott credit for trying to initiate educational change. But Florida needs more than change and accountability. If Floridians want a different economic and educational destiny than what they've had for the past 30 years, they need more than change. They need an educational revolution.

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