Peanut Butter, Education, and Markets

Article excerpt

Have you ever thought of petitioning Congress about the quality or quantity of the peanut butter you eat? Have you ever thought of creating a reform movement around peanut butter? Or have you ever wondered why there isn't a federal department of peanut butter? Maybe it's because if customers don't like Peter Pan, they can buy Jif, and if they don't like Jif, there's Skippy. We can get it chunky or smooth. We can even get low-fat peanut butter, of all things.

Why are there are so many variations on a product that in the scheme of life is pretty insignificant, but when it comes to education--a product that determines our children's future incomes and the very character of our society--America still relies on a Soviet-style monopoly that provides almost no choice, variation, or freedom?

Student achievement has been stagnant or falling in almost every subject for the past 30 years, as measured by several tests, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the International Evaluation of Education Achievement, the Young Adult Survey, the National Adult Literacy Survey, and the International Adult Literacy Survey. And it's not because we don't spend enough. Over the same 30-year period, real spending has doubled, increasing from $4,000 to $8,000 per child.

Why? One reason is that K- 12 education in America is a legally protected monopoly--it's protected from competition by its guaranteed tax base, and it's bereft of the profit motive that spurs innovation and efficiency in every other successful industry in the country. America desperately needs an education system where the customer is king. And when the customer is not treated as a king, he should be able to take his business elsewhere. Let's call this customer-driven education.

Naturally not everyone shares that vision. Vice President Al Gore's biggest-ticket education item is federal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Lost on Gore is the fact that 70 percent of preschool-aged children already attend preschool, and, call it old-fashioned, but some parents still prefer to care for their preschoolers at home. This flexible approach to early education arguably is the best part of the American education system. According to the Department of Education, U.S. preschoolers have a strong start. On factors that kindergarten teachers say are among the most important for school readiness--physical health, enthusiasm, and curiosity--today's kindergartners are in top shape. As they enter kindergarten, more than 95 percent are in good health; nine out of ten are eager to learn; and about 85 percent work and play creatively. In terms of concrete knowledge, 94 percent are proficient at recognizing numbers and shapes and counting to ten. Two in three know their ABCs.

It's also in the early years when American students are most competitive internationally. Consider France, England, Denmark, Spain, and Belgium--any number of European countries with universal preschools--where more than 90 percent of 4-year-olds attend public preschools. …