Roemer’s Ideas A Step In Right Direction

Lost amid the Thanksgiving preparations is a topic which surfaced over a week ago – namely, the suggestion by Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer that Louisiana’s Department of Education be shut down, reorganized and reopened with a different business model.

Roemer’s suggestion was made in a letter to state treasurer John Kennedy amid a controversy over whether the state, including the Department of Education, is spending too much money on private contracts. Kennedy is chairing a commission on streamlining state government, and the state’s education department would seem to be a good place to look for fiscal savings given Louisiana’s appalling expenditure of $10,500 per student and ranking of 49th out of 50 states in overall performance.

It’s clear what the state is doing isn’t working. Roemer suggests fundamental change:

While I believe you are asking very relevant questions in regard to contracts at DOE and other agencies, I would suggest an alternative approach to streamlining when it comes to the DOE: let’s close the Department and reopen it after it has been restructured from top to bottom and this includes a thorough discussion of the size and scope of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (“BESE”). To some this may seem extreme, but I would argue that changes at the margin will only result in marginal change, and if we are serious about streamlining in this state then we should take bold steps to transform the way we do business.

Roemer’s suggestion touched off a bit of discussion, but nowhere near enough. Kennedy responded to it by saying that Roemer “makes great points” and “that is certainly a topic we can take up” at the commission. That might sound like the beginning of a movement, or it might be a deft way of patting Roemer on the head and then ignoring him.

Meanwhile, state education superintendent Paul Pastorek revealed this week that salaries in his department are up 21 percent – no recession going on there, for sure – over Pastorek’s tenure.  Six-figure salaries in Pastorek’s department have nearly doubled. And Louisiana’s academic performance just lies there, like a dead fish.

The fact is, while Roemer’s idea to tube the state’s education department and come up with something else is a good one he doesn’t go far enough. There is little purpose for a state department of education in the first place; education is a local matter and not a state matter. In fact, education isn’t even really a local matter. It’s an individual matter, and it’s time we start treating it as such.

If Roemer is looking for a new business model for a revamped Department of Education, consider this one: fire everyone, cut the $10,500 per student down to $8,500 and write out a voucher to the parents of every student with a kid in school in Louisiana. Then cut loose every elementary and secondary school in the state and set them afloat in the marketplace.

You can put a kid through Catholic High in Baton Rouge for under $7,500 per year. Tuition at every boys’ high school in New Orleans can be had for under $8,500 with the exception of Newman, St. Martin’s and Country Day. It’s less than $6,000 a year to send a kid to St. Thomas More in Lafayette. It’s under $7,000 for Loyola Prep in Shreveport. Sure, the ritzy private schools like Episcopal in Baton Rouge or Newman in New Orleans would be out of range for those parents without a budget beyond the voucher amount, but if the Catholic schools can supply quality education for under the $8,500 figure then clearly the market would support educational entrepreneurs looking to improve the choice and quality of what is now a total failure of a system in this state.

Virtually everything about Louisiana’s education system is a joke. The public schools sit in decaying, poorly-maintained buildings which cost ridiculous sums to build in the first place. Local school boards are populated by teacher-union-approved petty tyrants who are vested in keeping everything exactly as it is. Special-interest groups like teacher unions, race-hustler organizations, rent-seeking lawyers and entrenched bureaucracies hamstring development and frustrate parents. A lowest-common-denominator mentality pervades, which drives parents of talented kids out of public schools altogether. Progressive therapeutic culture makes excuses for poor educational performance and destroys accountability. And on, and on.

Meanwhile, we spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with issues like sex education, prayer in schools, race relations and so on, projecting our cultural battles into an education system which produces ignoramuses who can’t place Chicago on a map, do simple algebra or read at a high-school level. Half our high school students don’t finish, leading our elected officials to consider offering a diploma program which doesn’t even pretend to our current mediocre standards – they call it a “career track,” which basically reflects that its graduates are semi-literate with elementary knowledge of math, science and history at best but managed to pass shop in high school.

It’s no surprise failure is endemic in such a system. Louisiana is a shining example of what John Stossel talked about in his ABC special “Stupid In America” last year (the clip below is 40 minutes but well worth watching):

None of this has to be the case. Those political issues surrounding education should be MARKET issues.  Want your kid to pray in school? Then put him in a school where the kids pray – whether that school is Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Lutheran or whatever. Are you a believer in sex ed for third graders? Then find a school where they teach sex ed to the third grade and put your daughter in that school. Looking for a diverse student body for your kid to learn to deal with people from different backgrounds? Seek one out in the market. Art? Sports? Computers? Science? No problem – the market can handle all those things. The bureaucracy, however, has shown it can’t. In that sense, education is no different than any other economic sector.

The obvious enemy of such a program is teachers’ unions. Strip education out of the current Soviet-style command economy and they lose their death-grip over the process. The teachers themselves, however, might be the biggest winners of all. In a competitive market for education, quality teachers become the most essential commodity of all – and unions become wholly unnecessary as aids in negotiation for compensation, just like they’ve become in virtually all private-sector skilled trades.

As Newt Gingrich is fond of saying, there’s the economy which works and the economy which doesn’t. Even in a severe recession like this there are still lots of examples in the private sector where creativity, innovation and hard work produces better and better output; the high end of our private educational system operates in that economy, but it’s too small a sector to positively affect the whole. Meanwhile we have some 80 percent of our schoolchildren toiling in the economy which doesn’t work. In other states an argument can be made that the public school system is working; in Louisiana such an argument is laughable, if not insulting.

Roemer has broken the ice in advocating the possibility of abandoning the status quo. If he’ll embrace an entirely market-driven educational system, perhaps we can begin a discussion about real educational reform that empowers individuals and stops hampering our kids.

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