What's wrong with our educational system?

First Published: 1999-03-30

I am not against (government run) public schools. I am against (government run) public schools where educational mediocrity goes unchallenged."
Rev. Floyd H. Flake.

While I was never a brilliant scholar I managed to get through our system with a relatively sound education. At the time, the job market was much less competitive and I found a job with little difficulty. Today, things are much different. We produce more children than jobs and more students that fail than pass. The vast majority of applicants for entry level jobs that I have encountered cannot calculate what ten percent of $200 equals. This is a real tragedy, and despite the best intentions of the Ministry of Education the problem is getting worse.

Our government run educational system is virtually a monopoly, and is responsible for educating an estimated 85-90% of our students. Unfortunately the "system" seems to have lost track of what its main purpose is…to educate our citizens. This has helped create failing grades, violence and demoralised students and teachers.How can we improve our educational system?

Dr. Milton Friedman, in suggesting how the United States could improve their failing educational system presented the idea of vouchers back in 1955. These vouchers would be issued for the amount of money spent on each student per annum by the Department of Education. Once put in the hands of parents, they can choose where they want their child to attend school. If the fees at the school of their choice are higher, the parents would make up the difference. In other words, the government run schools would in effect be privatised.

"Vouchers are not an end in themselves: they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system," Dr Friedman wrote. He went on to suggest that "As in all cases, the innovations in the "luxury" product will soon spread to the basic product." In other words, a standard of education that was previously only available to those who could afford private school will eventually be available to everyone.

Vouchers will be available to all students in the entire school system. After all, everyone pays the taxes that fund the school system. And, the vouchers should be redeemable at the school of the parents choice.To Privatise is to improve.

I suspect Dr. Friedman is correct. Once poor families have the ability to choose where their children are educated, it will force, (through competition) improvement in the results of the government run schools, or they will go out of business, just like in the private sector. Sales of a product or service rely on demand. When the teachers who are frustrated by our educational system can open a school of their own, because they believe they can do a better job of educating, I-m sure the Ministry of Education will do everything it can to improve. Competition within the system should bring the cost of education down. When the "market forces" come into play schools with the best reputation will be emulated. This will of course provide better employees and the standards of our work force will begin to rise, because the best interest of students will again be the focus of the largest supplier of education in the country.Bigger is not necessarily better.

I visited this subject back in November 1998 with an article about "Charter Schools" and discussed a program called Healthy Start in North Carolina. While we appear to believe that bigger buildings and all the attendant luxuries will make Johnny a smart boy, Headmaster Thomas Williams and his team are generating fabulous results with 170 welfare kids from the confines of a church basement. They stress a sound basic education where skills like reading, writing and arithmetic are emphasised, and not forgotten.A suggestion for the Minister of Education.

On second thought I have two suggestions:Lets determine if vouchers can work here in Nassau. Lets establish a system whereby parents can elect to receive a payment voucher to the school of their choice. We can limit the test to say 2 students for each grade, in each private school in Nassau. At the September opening of school we can measure the students ability with a standardised test. At the close of the school year the following June, we can conduct a similar test. If the results improve, the experiment worked, and we can expand the idea until the whole system is "privatised." Better still, lets privatise two government run schools…one primary and one senior. Teachers from throughout the public system can be given an opportunity to apply for the positions at the schools. If they meet the established criteria and are willing to be true partners in the "free market" process… we are off and running. I am willing to bet that even if the teachers currently at the school are given the opportunity to be autonomous the results will be better. A contract between the new school management and the government can be made whereby the school will return to the control of the Ministry of Education after two full academic years if the results do not improve. I am confident enough to believe the school will remain private if we would just attempt this idea. Governments will eventually do the right thing.

John Fund, a journalist with the Wall Street Journal once said something to the effect that governments will eventually do the right thing… but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities. I hope that we do not continue exhausting all the other possibilities at the expense of the generations we will leave behind in the unenviable position of being functionally illiterate.

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