Educaid

Over time we’ve developed a method for dealing with situations where (1) we don’t want poor people to be denied access to something essential, (2) we don’t want tax money to be wasted on substandard products or services, and (3) we don’t want poorer people to subsidize richer people.

That method works like this.  Poor people demonstrate that they can’t afford to pay for X.  We let them choose a private provider of X, who meets basic standards, and we give them money that can be spent only on X.

If X is medical care, we call that Medicaid. If it’s heating oil, we call it LIHEAP (the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program).  If it’s food, we call it SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Food Stamps, or EBT cards).  If it’s housing, we call it Section 8 (the Housing Choice Voucher Program).  And so on.

This is so well-established that we might call it the ‘standard model’ for helping the poor.

But if X is education, we abandon this model in favor of a government monopoly in which providing a service is equated with producing that service.  It’s like saying, well, some people can’t afford food, so the government had better start farming.

But what the standard model calls for is an Educaid program.  We could license teachers — the people who are actually providing the service — in much the same way that we license doctors, and let parents find the best teachers for their children, in much the same way that they find the best doctors for their families.  And when they can’t afford what they need, we would help them pay for it.

This would involve some trade-offs, mostly in the form of more effort in exchange for more flexibility.

For parents, Educaid would mean having to actively participate in educating their children, instead of just shipping them off to the nearest government-run school.  But they would gain a wide range of educational opportunities to choose from — not just private schools, but also the kinds of products and innovations whose creation is spurred by competition, and stifled by monopoly.

For some teachers, Educaid might mean giving up tenured jobs, pensions, summers off, automatic pay raises, and other perks.  But they would gain the chance to be recognized as, and truly act as, professionals.  That means having the chance to operate on their own terms, making their own decisions about which students to teach and which methods to use.  It also means competing with other professionals, reaping the rewards of success, and accepting the consequences of failure.  Doctors do this.  Lawyers do it.  Why not teachers?

For bureaucrats and administrators — employees of state departments of education, superintendents, principals, vice principals, assistant principals, assistant vice principals — there isn’t really a trade-off.  They would just have to go out and find other jobs.  It’s all downside for them.

But for taxpayers, Educaid would be all upside. One obvious benefit is that competition brings costs down while it drives quality up — the opposite of what happens with state monopolies.  Another is that providing aid only to those who demonstrate a need for it would relieve people of the perverse burden of subsidizing other people who are better off than they are.

A less obvious benefit is that since Educaid could be used only to educate students, it provides an opportunity to untangle education from day care.  That’s important, because it’s one thing for your taxes to be used so that kids don’t miss out on education, but it’s quite another for you to be paying for other people to park their kids while they go out and increase their incomes.

It would also provide an opportunity to untangle public benefit from private enrichment.  That’s important, because it’s one thing to use taxes to avoid a society filled with people who are illiterate, innumerate, or irrational, but it’s quite another to require people to subsidize sports, hobbies, college-level courses, job-specific training, social services, therapy, medical care, meals, transportation, and whatever else can be stuffed under the umbrella term ‘school’.

So who would win if we moved to an Educaid model?  Responsible parents, their children, teachers who want to be treated as professionals, non-traditional educators, and taxpayers.

Who would lose?  Indolent or wealthy parents, complacent teachers, and bureaucrats.

That sounds about right, doesn’t it?