Our elementary and secondary educational system in Detroit needs to be radically restructured. Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system--i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools. The most feasible way to bring about such a transfer from government to private enterprise is to enact in each urban areas where schools are failing a charter system that enables parents to choose freely the schools their children attend.
According the the late Milton Friedman, the quality of schooling is far worse today than it was in 1955. There is no respect in which inhabitants of a low-income neighborhood are so disadvantaged as in the kind of schooling they can get for their children. The reason is partly the deterioration of our central cities, partly the increased centralization of public schools--as evidenced by the decline in the number of school districts from 55,000 in 1955 to 15,000 in 2005. Along with centralization has come--as both cause and effect--the growing strength of teachers' unions. Whatever the reason, the fact of deterioration of Detroit's elementary and secondary schools is not disputable.
A radical reconstruction of the Detroit's educational system has been made more urgent by the twin revolutions that have occurred within the past few decades: a technological revolution--the development, in particular, of more effective and efficient methods of communication, transportation and transmission of data; and a more conservative political revolution that has widened the influence of the technological revolution through the reinstatement of traditional values into our schools.
The conservative political revolution greatly reinforced the technological revolution in two different ways. First, it added greatly to the pool of low-wage, yet not necessarily unskilled labor that could be tapped for cooperation with labor and capital from the advanced countries. The fall of the Iron Curtain added perhaps a half-billion people and China close to a billion, freed at least partly to engage in capitalist acts with people elsewhere.
Second, the conservative political revolution discredited the idea of central planning. It led everywhere to greater confidence in market mechanisms as opposed to central control by government. And that in turn fostered international trade and international cooperation.
There is enormous room for improvement in our educational system. Hardly any activity in Detroit is technically more backward. We essentially teach children in the same way that we did 200 years ago: one teacher in front of a bunch of kids in a closed room. The availability of computers has changed the situation, but not fundamentally. Computers are being added to urban public schools, but they are typically not being used in an imaginative and innovative way.
I believe here in Detroit that the only way to make a major improvement in our educational system is through privatization to the point at which a substantial fraction of all educational services is rendered to individuals by private enterprises. Nothing else will destroy or even greatly weaken the power of the current educational establishment--a necessary pre-condition for radical improvement in our Detroit Public School System. And nothing else will provide the public schools with the competition that will force them to improve in order to hold their clientele.
No one can predict in advance the direction that a truly free-market educational system would take. We know from the experience of every other industry how imaginative competitive free enterprise can be, what new products and services can be introduced, how driven it is to satisfy the customers--that is what we need in education. We know how the telephone industry has been revolutionized by opening it to competition; how fax has begun to undermine the postal monopoly in first-class mail; how UPS, Federal Express and many other private enterprises have transformed package and message delivery and, on the strictly private level, how competition from South Korea and Japan has transformed the domestic automobile industry.
The private schools that 10 percent of children now attend consist of a few elite schools serving at high cost a tiny fraction of the population, and many mostly parochial nonprofit schools able to compete with government schools by charging low fees made possible by the dedicated services of many of the teachers and subsidies from the sponsoring institutions. These private schools do provide a superior education for a small fraction of the children, but they are not in a position to make innovative changes. For that, we need a much larger and more vigorous private enterprise system.
Expanding a private system can promote rapid privatization only if they create a large demand for private schools to constitute a real incentive for entrepreneurs to enter the industry. That requires first that the voucher be universal, available to all who are now entitled to send their children to government schools, and second that the voucher, though less than the government now spends per pupil on education, be large enough to cover the costs of a private profit-making school offering a high-quality education. If that is achieved there will in addition be a substantial number of families that will be willing and able to supplement the voucher in order to get an even higher quality of education. As in all cases, the innovations in the "luxury" product will soon spread to the basic product.
For this image to be realized, it is essential that no conditions be attached to the acceptance of charters that interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment, to explore and to innovate. If this image is realized, everybody, except a small group of vested interests, will win: parents, students, dedicated teachers, taxpayers-- for whom the cost of the educational system will decline-- and especially the residents of central cities, who will have a real alternative to the wretched schools so many of their children are now forced to attend.
This is not a federal or state issue. Schooling is and should remain primarily a local responsibility here in Detroit. Support for free choice of schools has been growing rapidly and cannot be held back indefinitely by the vested interests of the unions and educational bureaucracy. I sense that we are on the verge of a breakthrough in Detroit when it comes to educational options like expanding charter schools, which will then sweep like a wildfire through the rest of Urban Michigan as it demonstrates its effectiveness.
To get a majority of the public to support an expansion on charter education, we must structure the proposal so that it (1) is simple and straightforward so as to be comprehensible to the voter, and (2) guarantees that the proposal will not add to the tax burden in any way but will rather reduce net government spending on education. A group of One Choice supporters in Metro Detroit are working to produce a tentative proposition that meets these conditions. The prospects for getting sufficient backing to have a real chance of passing such a proposition in 2008 are bright.