Whenever we talk about education reform, we talk about the most boring, narrow stuff. You want education reform? I'll show you education reform.
Imagine that omnipotent space aliens from the planet Zyrglax land on Earth and take control of the United States. But these aliens are somewhat bizarre, and they change only one thing: they teleport all public school buildings into the sun, and prohibit the government from any action or law providing for public education, even ruling out school vouchers and the like. All school budgets are rebated back to the taxpayer. Failure to comply will result in America being blasted to dust from orbit.
What would happen?
I'm serious — let's game this out. What would happen?
Well, at first it would be chaos. Millions of kids would be out of school, parents would be helpless, and so on.
But what would happen next?
For the upper class, not much would change — except for a handful of magnet public schools, they've basically opted out of the public education system.
What about the middle class?
This is where things get interesting. For one, a lot of people would smell a great business opportunity. Average private school tuition in the U.S. was $8,549 per year in 2010. Catholic schools manage to get it down to $6,018, and to $4,944 for elementary. For a middle-class family making $50,000 a year, putting your kids in private school would be a sacrifice, but it would be doable.
And there's a lot of data to suggest that those prices would be driven down — possibly way down. Currently, schools make almost no use of technology. There are no large education corporations, meaning there are no economies of scale (the Catholic Church is a big institution, but Catholic schools are operationally and financially independent — and the church is hardly known for its management acumen). Competition is hindered by the school district catchment system, and there is little incentive for innovation, given the fact that private schools are undercut by free public education.
Another thing you would see, therefore, would be a lot of innovative schools. You would see a lot more Montessori schools, given the overwhelming research that suggests that this almost 100-year-old method of education produces the best results. Think about it this way: In what kind of industry would a significant productivity enhancement method be ignored by the profession for several generations?
You might see new models emerging like AltSchool, a company that uses computers and small-group instruction to provide a better educational experience. At $19,100 a year, the tuition is unaffordable, but given that the company has raised $33 million from top-tier Silicon Valley venture capitalist firms, one has to imagine that it will over time lower its prices to achieve scale.
We would almost certainly see a great increase in home schooling, especially assisted by technology. Households might get better education, more sanity, and more fulfilling lives — and more financial stability, paradoxically — by having one spouse educate their children.
But wait a second, you say. Maybe that's true, and maybe we would see a lot of better schools get started and grow to scale — but only for those who can afford it.
To think about that, it's important to keep in mind the omnipotent, deathray-wielding space aliens from my thought experiment. Typically, if we saw a situation in which kids were kept out of school for being poor, there would be highly justified national outrage and a government program would quickly be voted in. But remember! The space aliens are here, and if you pass a law, they will space-bomb the entire country!
Stick with me here. What will happen is that philanthropy will take over. Yes, there's a track record of various small government types saying that if you slash this or that program private philanthropy will take over, and yet it seems it never does. But Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have together decided to devote tens of billions of dollars to charitable causes. More than 100 people have signed Gates and Buffett's "Giving Pledge," getting billionaires to agree to donate more than half of their wealth to charity. And the most popular charitable cause among hedge fund titans is education.
Let's not forget the Catholic Church has been educating poor immigrants at below-cost for well over a hundred years. You might disagree with these people's politics and motives, but you can't deny that their love for education is sincere.
Today, most of these people don't build free schools left and right because — well, first because they lack imagination, but mostly because kids already are in schools, albeit bad schools. And most of them prefer to focus on working within the system, trying to improve existing schools. But if there were no schools, and no prospect of getting schools via government program, of course there would be a national philanthropic groundswell to build and fund those schools via private initiative.
So what would happen? Well, as we said, the upper class would be the same. The middle class would probably have better, albeit more expensive, education. And the lower classes would still get free education, and possibly better education. At the end of the day, the number of kids in school would be the same as today. And many families would end up better off, though some might be worse off.
Would it be utopia? Absolutely not. There would be many bad things going on. A roiling free market is innovative and creative, but it also creates disturbances. There would be problems that we can't foresee.
Should we not only shut down all the public schools, but also prevent the government from having any education policy? Absolutely not. This isn't a policy proposal. It's a thought experiment.
One of the biggest problems of human imagination is status quo bias. Just because we have some stuff around us, we can't think of another way to arrange it. And because of this status quo bias, our debates about the future become impossibly cramped. Education is definitely a victim of this. A lot of people imagine that without public school, children would be left to play in traffic or huff glue, and nobody would ever get educated, except for the children of robber barons. But if you take the time to actually think it through, you realize that it would be a different world.
I leave the policy implications as an exercise for the reader. But first, take the red pill.