Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the February 2001 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.” The author wishes the reader to know that the conditions he described in 2001 are no better a decade later and neither are the public policies that produced them.
Public (government) education in America costs a princely sum, and it isn’t getting any cheaper. But what taxpayers shell out for the government school monopoly doesn’t tell the whole story. What others in society must pay to correct the shortcomings of that failed monopoly is huge and a painful testimony to the need for a big dose of choice, competition, and private enterprise.
Because government schools perform on a par with government farms, government factories, and government stores in the typical socialized society, we have in America what is commonly called “remedial education.” The government school establishment doesn’t like the term because of its pejorative nature, so its minions have lately come up with their own: “developmental education.” I have nothing to cover up, so I’ll use the former.
Remedial education is what has to happen when students graduate from high school lacking basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. They have a diploma, but it doesn’t certify that they know anything; these days, the only thing you can be sure a diploma certifies is that lots of people paid through the nose for at least 12 years before the government was done with you. When employers and universities have to spend money to bring high school graduates up to speed—to do what the K-12 system did not do—that’s remedial education.
Getting a handle on the costs of this corrective work in Michigan was the purpose of a study released in 2000 by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
“The Cost of Remedial Education: How Much Michigan Pays When Students Fail to Learn Basic Skills” by education policy scholar Jay P. Greene, captured page-one headlines all across the state and shook the very foundations of the government school establishment. It made a lot of people rethink their longstanding, rarely questioned assumptions about government schooling.
First, it’s important to understand what the study did not count. It did not include the cost of college-level work that has been “watered-down” but not labeled either “remedial” or “developmental.” Talk to most university professors these days and you’ll know what I mean.
The study accounted for the expense of instructional services, but did not count expenditures on technology to accommodate the lack of basic skills. Increasingly, businesses are investing in software and gadgets to do, in effect, an end-run around workers who lack basic skills. Many businesses these days buy cash registers that make change for customers because employees can’t be relied on to count accurately. Some fast-food chains actually provide cash registers with pictures of the food items on them so adult employees who can’t read “cheeseburger” can still use them.
And finally, the study did not count the costs incurred personally by either high school dropouts or graduates who have been short-changed by the system: the later costs of tutors and self-study, and the cost of lower incomes.
This study looked only at Michigan and only at the costs of remedial education incurred just by businesses and universities in that state. At a minimum, one-third and probably something closer to one-half of all students graduating from Michigan public high schools lack basic skills. By using five different strategies for calculating these costs, Greene arrived at $601 million as a conservative estimate of what Michigan businesses and universities spend each year to remediate high school graduates lacking basic skills. That is a considerable sum on top of the $13 billion state and local governments spend on public education each year in Michigan, and yet it’s surely too low because of all the costs that were not part of the calculation.
The government school establishment is quick to suggest that the problem isn’t entirely the fault of the schools. Parents, they say, are partly to blame when they don’t prepare kids well or see that they do their homework. While it’s true that many parents have abdicated their responsibilities in the education of their children, it’s also true that many parents who do take education seriously find that they must constantly fight the public schools on matters of proper course content and academic rigor. Many parents believe the report cards their kids bring home, not realizing that grade inflation and poor teaching render the meaning of those report cards dubious. And schools, not parents, are the outfits that issue the diplomas that once implied a mastery of at least basic skills. If a student doesn’t have those skills, it’s deception when his school graduates him as if he did.
Janet Dettloff, chair of the Math and Sciences Division at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, says the remedial problem is acute and goes beyond a simple lack of knowledge: “Most of the students who come to us not only lack math and English skills, but they lack basic academic skills too. They have no idea what is expected of them at the college level. They don’t know how to take notes. They don’t read the assigned material. And many of them don’t even come to class.”
Others from both the business and university communities told the author what education reformers have long understood: government schools are doing a poor job of imparting critical thinking skills. Logic and reason have largely been supplanted by appeals to emotion. In place of rigorous analytical processes, students are asked to tell how they feel about a particular issue. The “self-esteem” craze that has swept public education essentially produces students by the boatload who don’t really know much, don’t know that they don’t know, but feel real good about their ignorance.
Getting the public to think about the high costs of remedial education is proving to be a catalyst for advancing real reform. If you favor more choice, competition, and private enterprise in education—irrespective of your preference for vouchers or tax credits or privatization and complete separation of school and state as a means to do that—the remediation problem provides new and powerful arguments: It vividly demonstrates that there are costs to not scrapping the status quo. People who are uncomfortable with the thought of change have some startling new numbers to wrestle with.
Apologists for government schooling love to spurn the arguments of reformers with the line, “You’re not being fair because, after all, public schools have to take all comers. They can’t pick and choose as private schools can.” Well, thanks to eye-opening studies like this one on the remedial problem, we know that whether public schools take everybody or not, it’s clear that atrociously high numbers of those they take are not getting educated.