The recent, ringing defeat of a referendum on school vouchers in Utah - generally thought of as America's most conservative state - should be a wake-up call to critics of our public school system.
The proposal failed for several reasons apart from the might of the teachers unions. Chief among these is that it was perceived as a solution in search of a problem: an effort by a group of doctrinaire conservatives to sell an intellectually tidy "free market" panacea without taking the trouble to first convince the electorate that schools, and particularly high schools, have serious flaws.
The fact is, if not for the obstructionism of the teachers unions, schools could be fixed with the scalpel of reform rather than the sledgehammer of vouchers.
Consider: Most parents are generally pleased by the state of public high schools. (The exception is the inner cities, where vouchers do have a constituency - albeit one not often exploited by conservatives.) Most parents graduated from such institutions and feel that they turned out just fine.
Moreover, public schools perform many valuable services. These include getting offspring out of the house when they are at their most difficult; transporting them to distant locations free of charge; providing free, or at least very cheap, lunches and sometimes breakfasts too; introducing them to the opposite sex in a controlled environment; providing some physical activity, thus preventing them from being couch potatoes; providing spectator sports to entertain them on weekends; instilling some basic literacy and the ability to read clocks and timetables; and, at the end of the process, bestowing a diploma entitling the recipient to further subsidized education.
The benefits of the system are obvious, its costs delayed and diffuse.
Though few realize it, the system is one of the most expensive in the world, and large portions of its costs take the form of bricks, mortar, "Cadillac" health insurance policies and defined-benefit teacher pensions.
More consequential are the costs its graduates will pay in middle life for deficiencies in scientific and mathematical training, as skilled American jobs are exported and properly trained workers from abroad are imported. Test after test and commission after commission has decried the fact that American schools are close to the bottom of the league in these subjects, and that differentials with foreign countries grow greater at higher grade levels. Parents indulge the illusion that our foreign competitors have elitist systems, not universal ones, but such is no longer the case: Their secondary-school completion rates frequently exceed ours.
Teacher shortages are decried, but the only remedies acceptable to unions and the politicians that fear them are scholarships for college students willing to become teachers - not extra pay for scarce disciplines. But scholarships do not pay mortgages and children's college tuitions, leading science teachers to leave the system as their families mature. Then there are certification procedures requiring a year of education courses to enter the system and two or three years to become a school administrator.
It would be nice if conservatives ceased dreaming Milton Friedman's dreams of a more privatized system and got down to brass tacks. Our public schools need three major reforms: building-level governance (like that provided by the 1988 Education Act of the Thatcher government in England); a reduction of certification requirements to not more than one term of education courses; and differential pay for teachers in scarce disciplines.
Each of these reforms has a potential constituency: parents and teachers frustrated by bureaucracies for the first; liberal arts graduates and retiring military and civil servants for the second; and the business, scientific, medical and higher-education community for the third.
The energy applied to statewide voucher schemes should be directed to these reforms.
If teachers unions resist them as obstinately as in the past, the public arguments over them will make the case for vouchers more obvious.
George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research and the author of "The Agreement: How Federal, State and Union Regulations are Destroying Public Education in Maryland." His e-mail is email@example.com.