The virtue of customized services has become embedded in American values. Our coffee drink has 87,000 choices. Banking is so personalized that  the notion of “bankers hours” is an antique concept, thanks to online banking and mobile apps. Our phone plans fit exactly the needs of each customer.

Only in education have we clung stubbornly to the monopoly model. Like some gray factory in an Eastern Bloc country last century, schools continue to operate as designed by government without the flexibility to adapt.

FreedomFoundation_03Whenever any deficiency is noted, we add to the monolith some symbolic program or requirement that lets policymakers sleep a little better. Unfortunately, the complexity of the various needs students have is much greater than any amount of tinkering with the monopoly could credibly address.

Special Education needs, cultural diversity needs, targeted skills training needs, non-English speaker needs, study skill needs, social and emotional coaching needs, health needs, discipline needs and proficiency level differences among students are all much more pronounced than ever in history.

So tinkerers keep adding processes to the monopoly until nobody is served well. The funding system has reflected this growing complexity by trying to define the one size that fits all.

It won’t work, and it is ridiculously complex to try.

We appreciate options with coffee, banking and communication services. We even trust creative customization with much more important services like food, healthcare, and housing.

Parents and children should also have the ability to choose from among competing providers offering customized services to meet families’ needs. Expanding options is in students’ interest because the chance of finding the “right fit” for each student’s unique needs is greater.

Nobel laureate and economist Milton Friedman had it right in 1955. Recognizing that society benefits from an educated population, he noted:

“A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens”

But he also realized:

 “. . . governments have in the main financed education by paying directly the costs of running educational institutions . . .. Governments could require a minimum level of education which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on “approved” educational services.”

Expanding the options for families is also in the public interest because customization is more efficient; education services are a better fit; and parents are engaged in education decision-making in a more meaningful way.

As Milton Friedman noted more than fifty years ago:

“The result of these measures would be a sizable reduction in the direct activities of government, yet a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children. They would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy.”

Let’s bring K-12 education into the 21st century, and make policies that actually recognize what we all instinctively understand: one size does not fit all.


[Reposted from the Freedom Foundation blog]