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The twin monster

Two things make everything better: accountability and efficiency.

First, let’ s talk about accountability. If you buy a car, you expect it to work. If it doesn’ t, you hold the car company accountable — you don’ t buy another car from that company. Same thing with a restaurant. If the food or service is bad, you don’ t go back. To avoid these results, private businesses work hard to provide satisfactory goods and services. If they don’ t, they go out of business. That’ s accountability.

Now to efficiency. Private businesses work hard to stay efficient for two reasons. First, by providing goods and services for less they can make more money — a powerful motivator if ever there was one. But don’ t forget that efficiency is also a vitally important part of accountability: Consumers hold businesses accountable for their prices first and foremost. An inefficient business which cannot keep its prices competitive will be priced out of business.

One big problem with government-run enterprises (the Observer is going to talk specifically about education here, although the same points are true in government-run health care) is that neither accountability nor efficiency is at work.

If you’ re a Farmingtonian and have a high-school age child that child is going to Farmington High School. You have no choice. Farmington High School has a monopoly on high school education here. No government-run monopoly fears the twin monsters, accountability and efficiency, which terrorize the private sector.

The Observer wants to emphasize that this column does not denigrate teachers or anyone else involved in the educational system. It’ s natural and, quite frankly, inevitable for an organization unaffected by market forces to grow fat and atrophy. The decline at issue is a systemic phenomenon, not an individual one.

And so the fact is that schools don’ t go out of business. Some folks have proposed school choice as an antidote to this problem. Under this concept, the government would let parents place their children in the school of the parents’ choice. The level of public (i.e. taxpayer) funding would be based on the parents’ collective preferences (i.e. the more parents who send their children to a given school, the more public funding that school would receive). The idea is that additional schools would spring up, creating a competitive educational environment. Suddenly, accountability and efficiency would pervade education, like it pervades the private sector, and, as an added bonus, parents would have choices.

But school choice has a rough row to hoe. (The phrase “rough row to hoe,” by the way, is a medieval one. Every year, each family of peasants in western Europe was given a row or two of common ground in which to grow produce for the family’ s needs, as opposed to the lion’ s share of ground which was allocated for the lord’ s needs. The rows assigned to the various peasant families rotated from year to year. Some years, a given family had a soft, fertile row; some years the family was assigned a “rough row to hoe”).

Teachers unions, administrators’ organizations, and seemingly everyone else in public education vehemently oppose school choice. The reason is difficult to discern or, perhaps more accurately stated, uncomfortable to articulate. It would seem that teachers, or at least teachers who excel, should favor school choice because excellent teachers would demand more money in a competitive market. As things stand, the very most outstanding teacher in Farmington is taking what the school district is giving. Nothing more.

Why, then, does the public educational establishment so despise school choice? Because accountability and efficiency are perceived as hard and cruel things. And they can be … for the mediocre. But they can also lead to great rewards for the excellent.

The Settlement Observer is a resident of Farmington

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