Innovation and Change in Education

Education is one of the most essential experiences we demand for ourselves and our children. Whether it is teaching manners, arithmetic, or how to succeed in life, we want the most outstanding education possible. The goal is the same for most people: personalized, accessible, and affordable schooling that leads to success in the workforce, and happiness in life. But our current system is inadequate. So, what can we do to fix this flawed system?

First, we need to recognize what the problems are. Is it a lack of accessibility to schooling? No. Regardless of where a family resides, they are in a school district where they can access public education. The problem is access to quality education.

Is another problem affordability? No. Again, we all have access to “free” public education. But like Larry Sharpe said about free college— it is still free bad college. So yes, we can go to a free public school, but many of them are free bad public schools. Often the only good education available is private, which is currently too expensive for many families.

Another problem with our current system is that it is a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The state often forgets that students are individuals who learn best by using various methods and at differing paces. They do not consider individual aspirations for future careers. This is especially evident in state colleges and universities, who do not currently offer many programs that the workforce needs.

Perhaps most importantly, we keep throwing money at ineffective schools that underperform and do not allow students to thrive. They are being rewarded for doing a bad job. In a free market, if a business is not doing well for their customers, they shut down and the customers move to a more successful business. The same should happen with education. If a public school is not teaching students effectively, funding should cease until the school finds a better way, or until they shut down. The idea of rewarding a bad job also applies to inadequate teachers. For example, job privileges are given to teachers who have been employed longest, not to teachers who are better at their job.

So what solutions can we put forth to make these problems go away? Should we continue to fund, fund, and fund some more? Governor Cuomo seems to think more funding (which requires significant tax increases) will increase higher education accessibility and affordability. With the new Excelsior Scholarship program, families who earn up to $125,000 per year are eligible for free tuition for any CUNY or SUNY two- or four-year program. The student must take 30 credits per year, then stay in New York state after graduation for as many years as they were in the program. It is popular, but there are some major problems with this so-called solution.

As Larry said in a CBS “Live It Up with Donna Drake” interview, the state is basically bribing students to stay. That’s not a very honorable way to keep New Yorkers from moving out of state. Suppose a recent college graduate can only find a job in NYC, but can’t afford to live in the city and must find a place to live in New Jersey. Or suppose a recent grad can’t find a job in the state at all. Do we expect them to give up a job opportunity to stay in the state, or risk having their scholarship turn into a loan they can’t afford? What would most likely happen is a new layer of corruption: the grad would leave the state and use an in-state address  to keep from owing tuition.

Another major problem with the Excelsior Scholarship is that a student must take 30 credits each year. This is a full-time load, which is doable, but it is extremely difficult for students who need to work while enrolled in school. After all, the scholarship only covers tuition, so the student still needs to foot the bill for housing, books, food, and other necessities. Those who need to work are at a disadvantage and may not be able to keep up with 15 credits per semester.

The program does not cover costs for failed classes. If a student is overloaded and consequently fails a class, they owe tuition to the school. So as attractive as “free” college sounds, it creates more problems for those it claims to help.

The same can be said for the free 3-K plan Mayor Bill de Blasio has been endorsing in NYC. It will add more seats to already crowded classrooms and make it more difficult to add funding for more teachers. The city will need a projected $700 million from both the state and federal governments to fund this.  Not to mention it would give funding to public schools, daycare centers, and religious centers. Many of the same people who are against school choice vouchers because it directs funds to religious institutions are trying to push funds to religious institutions for 3-K students.

The simple solution to fixing our education system is to relinquish the stronghold of the state education department. It has already proven it cannot competently handle your money. A few years ago,$356 million for special education funding disappeared. Recently, another $84 million budgeted for disability programs can’t be accounted for. And of course, school construction and renovation projects almost always go over time and over budget. Simply put, the department does not efficiently keep schools up to quality standards.

Ideally, under a libertarian government, educational institutions would be a segment of the free-market which would allow good schools to succeed (based on competition and profit incentives) and bad schools to close. Prices would be set by market supply and demand laws so there would be different schools at different price points, and charitable free schooling for those in need (much like charitable hospitals). But until we get government out of the education business, there are still ways to immediately improve our current system.

To make access to high quality schooling easier for every family, the state must empower families by getting rid of mandatory location-based school districts. A zip code should not determine what kind of education a student receives. If a family lives in a low-income neighborhood, their government should not force them to attend poor quality schools.

In terms of affordability, we need to bring back the option of school choice to New York state. Upper class families already have school choice. They can afford to send their kids to any school in the state. Families with less means have no choice in our current system. They live in areas where schools are not thriving, but they cannot afford to send their children elsewhere.

Think of school choice vouchers like food stamps. Instead of having government-run grocery stores where everybody can get groceries for “free,” the state gives food vouchers to needy families to buy groceries at any market store they want. The same would be true for school choice vouchers. Instead of being forced into government-run schools, the state returns tax dollars to families in the form of a voucher the can spend at any school of their choosing. This would lead to many more options for more personalized education, which is incredibly important for a state as wonderfully diverse as New York.

Indeed, personalization of education would be much easier if we empowered families instead of a bureaucratic education department.  If there were fewer regulations and blanket curriculums in all sectors of education (public, private, charter, home school, etc.), there would be more options for different programs. Some could focus on agriculture, arts, or STEM. Others could focus on different methods of teaching (hands-on, teamwork or solo work, varied levels of reading, etc.). This should apply to higher education as well. Larry has said that colleges should be trying harder to figure out which skills are needed in the workforce and applying that to what programs they offer.

Education is too important for the people of New York state to put up with inadequate, bureaucratic institutions. Families and individuals need the power of choice and the freedom of opportunity back in their hands.

Check out Larry Sharpe on education reform here:

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