October 12, 2012

Public Education Going The Way Of The Post Office

Recent news of the United States Postal Service’s debt problems has brought the agency’s mounting business troubles back into the spotlight. Many post offices were shut down last year (20 in Missouri), as the USPS used one if its few tools to respond to changing business conditions.

This is an example of an industry where there are strong private alternatives to a government-provided service. USPS has a monopoly on first class mail, but UPS and FedEx provide consumers with many other options to meet shipping needs.

As I read James Shuls’ blog post “What is Public Education?” it occurred to me that traditional public schools and the postal service have more in common than one might expect.

Public schools and post offices obviously provide different services, but they are both trailing behind their private counterparts. These government services are highly regulated, in what I assume is an attempt to make them well-run. But the opposite is true. Under these conditions, the postal service cannot adapt to the changing marketplace as easily as UPS and FedEx. Similarly, public schools cannot respond to changing school and student needs as swiftly as private and charter schools.

The success of UPS, FedEx, charter schools, and private schools shows us that people often prefer non-government services and (gasp) receive a better product.

Traditional public schools are not always able to attract and retain the best teachers, nor can they remediate or remove the worst. Bad schools stay open when they should close. And regulations prevent students from using technology to learn at their own pace.

I am certainly no anarchist, but I am rational enough to see when markets are better than government. Businesses thrive when they are able to adapt and compete. Just as restrictive burdens on the USPS have hindered the organization’s performance, government regulations are stifling education. In Saint Louis, for example, it often takes more than 100 days to remove a low-performing teacher.

We need to take a clue from the postal service: freedom, not regulation, produces better results.

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