All Commentary
Sunday, June 1, 1997

The Gift of a Child: The Promise of Freedom

Immediate and Exclusive State Control Has Ruined Education

Clark Durant currently serves on the State Board of Education in Michigan and is the immediate past president of the Board. He is also the chairman of the Cornerstone Schools. He and his wife, the former Susan Sparks, have four children.

A child. What a blessing. Laughter. A sense of discovery and curiosity. Faith—at first—that the world will be a good place. Certain without seeing. Persistent. Resilient. Imperfect. Bold. Dependent. Active. Unrefined possibilities. A heart waiting to be nurtured.

How does a child unlock life’s possibilities? There are so many questions along the way: Who am I? What am I to do? What is a good and productive life? What do I need to know? Who will teach me?

Learning begins the moment we’re born. We try. We fail. We succeed. We seek. We find. We look and listen. We seek to know or to do something better, until at last we either abandon the effort or reach a point of success and satisfaction—often learning more in our failures than what we first had set out to know or to do. But whether we fail or succeed, our imagination is stirred. We ask (and even the smallest child will), What else is possible? Learning, then, is first about being free to seek, question, and own. Yes, own. Ultimately, we must own what we learn so that we may be accountable for what we learn, and that it may take shape in our minds, hearts, and actions.

There are two preconditions to learning and knowing: freedom and responsibility. The freedom to know, to own, to choose, and to fail. The responsibility for making the choices. Unfortunately, freedom and responsibility are not what we have in public education for our children today, and without them, we must fall short in teaching, learning, and knowing. Without them, our teachers and learning enterprises will not have the tools, the capital, or the incentives to perform at the highest level. Further, until we inject freedom and responsibility, we will continue to suffer all manner of ills: student boredom, violence, dropping out, parental dissatisfaction, academic mediocrity, teacher burnout, and a decline in personal behavior and standards.

This is not because bad people work in our educational system. Thousands of committed teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members work hard in the field of education. They till the soil, plant seeds, and labor diligently to bring forth a bountiful harvest. Enormous resources, material and of the heart, are committed to the task, but the crop never fully matures, its growth stunted. Why? It is because the tools, methods, and organizational structure of our public educational enterprises are poorly suited to their task. There is no accountability for results, no financial incentives, no coupling of results and rewards, and no competition. The pre-conditions for the optimum performance in learning are simply not present in public education as we know it today . . . and this is not just my observation.

The late Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed out that our public education system more resembles the failed command-and-control economies of Eastern Europe than our own free-market system. Command-and- control organizations are neither free nor accountable. Many people in politics, academia, business, and labor recognize this and have therefore called for educational reform. But I contend that most of these calls are misdirected and doomed to failure. Merely to reform a fundamentally flawed system—because it lacks freedom and responsibility—is inadequate.

No matter how hard we try; how many standards we impose; how many professional credits we earn; how much money we spend—we will fall short unless we get at the root of our problem. As Louis Gerstner, the Chairman of IBM, said to the National Governors Conference in 1995, We need a 100 percent revolution that discards the old and replaces it with a totally new, performance-driven system. He’s right, but successful revolutions just don’t happen. They require vision, understanding, and patience.

“Immediately, Exclusively Controlled by the State”

How do we achieve high performance in undertakings other than education? Think about the responsibilities that parents have toward their children. They must provide food, clothing, shelter, communication, transportation, energy, health, love, and an education. To do these things, one or both of the parents must have a job or a business, not just to earn the money needed, but also to set a moral example of how to live a good and responsible life. Now let us ask: Which one of these basic responsibilities to our children would we want provided through a monopoly political enterprise immediately, exclusively controlled by the state? Most likely none of them. Yet, the language, immediately, exclusively controlled by the state, is the definition that our legislature and courts have used to define public education in Michigan. Other state legislatures and courts have done much the same. Local public schools are defined not by their mission, but instead by political control, money, and geography.

Normally, before we define something, we first decide what it is that we are about: our goals and objectives. Then we decide the best way to organize ourselves to achieve them. But in public education, we do it backwards. We pre-empt our mission and focus; instead, we begin by defining public education by its local geography, organizational attributes, political power and control. We do not look at the mission and standards. This is just the opposite of what we do with other enterprises, particularly ones to meet our basic responsibilities as parents. Is having an enterprise immediately, exclusively controlled by the state the best method to fulfill our responsibilities as parents and citizens to educate our children? If we insist on this system by law, how can we ever find out what method or methods are truly best?

Food, Shelter, and Transportation

Let’s look again at some of those responsibilities to our children. Feeding them. Can you imagine food being produced in enterprises that are immediately, exclusively controlled by the state? Can you imagine having to shop only at a government grocery store? Or if you decided that you would rather shop at a non-government grocery store, would you be willing first to pay the government for food you did not use before being allowed to shop in a store of your own choosing? Can you imagine food being produced on government farms? Does anyone believe that a government monopoly enterprise could provide the best food in all of its variety and quality and distribute it at the lowest possible price to the people? Either we’d starve, or at best have a bland and not very nutritious diet. More than half the world has tried a system of providing food through enterprises immediately, exclusively controlled by the state and we know it doesn’t work. You need real owners who are accountable and who have a stake in the success or failure of their enterprises if you want the highest level of performance, achievement, and service to all people.

Consider shelter. We also have an enterprise immediately, exclusively controlled by the state here—public housing. Does it meet the shelter needs of our citizens very well, or even adequately? Hardly. Public housing projects are dangerous and depressing. Most parents with children want to escape from public housing.

What about transportation? My home state of Michigan is the car capital of the world, but there is much competition around the globe. In fact, competition improves the product, performance, service, and price. Can you imagine, however, what cars would be like if they were produced in a system without competition, in an enterprise immediately, exclusively controlled by the state? It has been done. East Germany produced the Trabant; Yugoslavia produced the Yugo. Do you drive one? Would you do so if you had a choice? I prefer to buy from Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, or from a host of other companies that succeed—or fail—based on how well they satisfy the consumer. So does virtually everyone else.

One hundred and fifty years ago, travel from New York to California and back took at least four weeks, cost an enormous amount of money, entailed considerable risk, and was very uncomfortable. Today, however, you can fly from New York to Los Angeles and back within one day, for a very reasonable fee (even free with Frequent Flyers), with very low risk, while enjoying the comforts of a meal and a movie. Why is it that transportation today is so much faster, cheaper, safer, and more comfortable than it was a century and a half ago? It is because the transportation industry operates in a market—a consumer-focused, innovation- and service-driven, owner-accountable system—not in an enterprise immediately, exclusively controlled by the state. Here, as elsewhere, the market has produced spectacular results.

So why do we let a government-owned monopoly system educate our precious children? Enterprises immediately, exclusively controlled by the state undermine freedom, responsibility, performance, and community. A politically enforced monopoly does not and cannot produce the highest quality standards and results.

We need to de-monopolize and de-politicize our public education enterprises to raise standards, re-energize teachers, strengthen communities, permit wider innovation, and bring down costs, and to allow them to meet the particularized and sometimes unanticipated needs of children. A public school should be a school the public chooses to have. Universal access should mean universal opportunities and choices.

Peter Drucker has referred to our time as a post-capitalist age, a time of great transformation. No longer is it sufficient to identify the means of production as simply capital, labor, and land. In the post-capitalist age, it is knowledge and the application of knowledge to a myriad of transactions that will shape our future. Self-organizing enterprises will offer the strength and capacity to solve problems. Those who understand this will be the leaders in the coming century. This period will require different skills—but classic virtues—from our children if they are to be good and productive citizens. Yet our government education system is rooted in the fixed and bureaucratic framework of a bygone age.

Wanted: New Kinds of Schools

Our schools are more important today than ever before, but they must be different kinds of schools than in the past. We need schools that have the capacity not only to particularize skills and excellences, but also to nurture character and virtue. As Drucker has pointed out, the knowledge society is a society in which many more people than ever before can be successful. But this knowledge can only be acquired through different understandings of teaching, learning, and knowing. Knowledge is portable. It will be created everywhere, quickly and cheaply. It is also changing. Because knowledge is the key resource—more so than land, labor, and capital—self-directed learning and knowledge ownership requires personal responsibility and freedom in order to flower in the garden of opportunity.

Many people currently in public education cringe at the idea of introducing the concepts of the market into their domain. Why? Primarily because markets are perceived as chaotic and impersonal. Some people win, but others lose, they claim. Schools should be for children, not marketed like products, they say. But markets are just people coming together to trade, giving up something of theirs in return for something else they desire more. There is no loser in a voluntary transaction free of force or fraud. Everyone wins—otherwise the trade wouldn’t take place. Free exchange makes possible most everything that makes life easier to bear and enjoy, from the meals we eat, the houses we live in, and the clothes we wear, to the cars we drive, the books we read, and the hospitals that save our lives. We have learned from bitter experience that enterprises immediately, exclusively controlled by the state are not good at providing any of these things.

Exchange in the market is characterized by win-win results. Billions of these two-sided victories take place each day all over the world, involving matters of material comfort and also things of the heart. Be glad. Be grateful. Yes, sometimes mistakes are made, the workmanship is poor, or fraud is committed. We may encounter racism. But moral conduct, free exchange and legal protection regarding, among other things, force and fraud, correct these things best. The occasional imperfection in market exchange is no reason to discard it and its enormous power for satisfaction and innovation.

Many people in public education also object to an educational marketplace because they say the market treats children as if they were just products. Public educators frequently say, however, that children are their raw materials, but unlike businesses, public schools cannot sort and reject imperfect raw materials. They must take them all. Let’s set the record straight. Children are not products . . . and they are not raw materials either. They are human beings with a capacity to choose, to discern, and to grow. They are seeking those who can enable them and teach them to fulfill their purpose and build their future. The market best helps the family or responsible adult to find the people and institutions who will do that for children.

Children are at once the same and yet so different. It is precisely this fact that requires educational freedom. There is a basic platform level of skills (reading, writing, math, and communications), as well as the development of virtue and character necessary in the education of every child. But children learn differently and have different interests and aptitudes. Unfortunately, our politicized education system gives us products, services, and methods that are developed by a command-and-control bureaucracy. Do we choose such a system to provide universal access for any of our other basic responsibilities?

Freedom, Ownership, and Leadership

Leadership is the key to a good school. Leadership in the classroom, in the principal’s office, and at home. Real leadership and personal responsibility ultimately depend on freedom and ownership. Ownership leads to accountability for success and failure where people are free to make choices. We need to ask how we can make that ownership possible. Let’s do what Lincoln did for the development of the West. He let the taxpayers be true owners of the public lands.

Some may try to sidestep this and say that the taxpayers are the owners of the local public education system. They are not the owners. They are the payers. Keep in mind, however, that collective ownership really means no ownership at all. It merely shifts power to political bureaucracies. Our new understanding of public schools must include real ownership. We will need broad-based funding sources to ensure that no child is denied an education, but we must also have multiple educational providers who have the motivation of ownership and accountability.

Let’s have public corporations for a new kind of public education. Let’s allow educational entrepreneurs to raise capital in the public markets. If you have a good idea and can produce results, enormous resources are available. A tremendous variety of educational enterprises, non-profit and, yes, for-profit, will emerge. Community learning centers. Reading clinics. Math outlets. Banks and financial service companies might start a school of business and finance. Automobile makers and their suppliers might start a school for engineers and other related professions. Our houses of faith can create and/or expand existing schools to offer a program to touch the heart and not just the mind. Teachers, principals, parents, and others may start schools. When we let freedom work, we will discover what best serves the educational needs of different families and children.

Innovations invariably result from the creativity of pioneers who develop a product or service that meets a need we might not even have known before. Competition and the innovation that it fosters will bring down the cost and time of education, while increasing the rewards to those who best succeed in providing educational products and services.

Teaching and learning are starved for capital, both personal and financial. Yet, the statutory framework for public education artificially limits (1) the number and type of public learning enterprises and owners, (2) makes it impossible for existing public providers to tap billions of dollars in financial, knowledge and human capital, (3) restricts the capacities and rewards of teachers, and (4) impedes our ability to create new tools for learning for our children. Freedom, responsibility, and ownership are the keys to unlocking the capital we need to make education flourish as never before.

It is crucial that people purchase public education directly, when and for only as long as they or their children need it. Sovereign consumers have a greater impact on quality and efficiency than a political bureaucracy ever could. Furthermore, if you only pay for education when you use it—like those other parental responsibilities—you will be able to save, invest, and spend according to personal—rather than bureaucratic priorities.

The teachers, principals, and others in our public schools today may and can lead the transformation to our public learning enterprises of tomorrow. There will be others of great creativity to help support and reward these teachers if we open up the system. Traditional schools offering a classic curriculum will have their market, too. They will benefit, as the others will, from innovation, higher investment in technology, distance learning—all bringing lower costs and higher rewards. What is critical for the success of any of these public education enterprises? Freedom, true ownership, and personal responsibility.

Our schools and our children are trapped in the tentacles of an educational establishment immediately, exclusively controlled by the state. Separate them. Let our children, families, teachers, principals, superintendents, and communities breathe the fresh air of freedom and the challenges of ownership and self-government. When we permit educational freedom, true universal access, and multiple providers, we will not only get the higher performance we all seek in schools for the public, but also stronger communities rooted in a profound sense of love and personal responsibility.