William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chair of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, explains the Kirwan Commissions recommendations for Maryland's public schools. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
If you’ve played the board game Monopoly, you know the nature of that beast. Once you corner the market, you rake it in — while your customers head for the poor house.
So, it’s mystifying why we tolerate monopoly power in a vital sector that often fails to serve its clients well: our public schools.
Not all school systems are dismal, of course, and those with poor overall performance often have bright spots. Kudos to the intrepid staffers and teachers who gamely provide good service in these lumbering, crumbling, expensive monopolies.
Getting your kids out of harm’s way is only possible if you are a parent of means. Then you can afford private-school tuition or pull up stakes and move to a better (or less bad) district – though you’ll likely find rents and home prices higher there.
Everyone else copes with fallout from not just one but two monopolies. Customers deal with bloated bureaucracies that enforce system-wide dictates that often ill serve students and demoralize teachers. Upstream, those teachers bargain collectively – i.e., monopolistically – about compensation, exercising market power via occasional strikes or promising a bloc of votes to the politicians they can roll over most easily.
This “systemic monopolism” (to parallel woke terminology) explains much of the chronic underperformance of our public schools. In the last half-century, we have tripled real per-pupil spending in the U.S., yet many achievement scores are stubbornly flat. Sure, more money sometimes helps, but relying on monopolies to spend wisely is a fool’s errand.
Yet we not only tolerate this disappointing status quo but nod agreeably as pundits, politicians and special interests with their snouts in this trough assure us that with more billions and adoption of the “best practices” du jour, all will be well.
If we organized any other key market this way, there’d be a revolution. Suppose, for example, our elected representatives decided we should not leave food supply to “the free market.” Central planners would manage production in government-owned farms and food processing plants; you would get your rations in your district’s state-run grocery store. If you didn’t like the quality of whatever showed up on its shelves, you could seek out private sellers — if rich enough.
You would laugh hysterically — unless you thought they were serious, in which case you might point out that that’s basically how the Soviet Union rolled, leading to chronic shortages, occasional famines and eventual economic collapse.
Closer to home, back in New Deal times, progressives decided that affordable housing could not be adequately supplied by private enterprises and set up local public housing authorities. Over several decades, the results — vertical slums known as “the projects” — proved only that local governments were terrible landlords. Razing those projects and employing a voucher system to subsidize housing consumption became the obvious solution. Ditto in the food market: food stamps (or, nowadays, debit cards) deliver subsidies to the poor while harnessing the energy of entrepreneurial capitalism up and down the food supply chain.
The lesson here is that injecting competition into any market and expanding consumers’ range of choice is a tried and true method of enhancing their welfare. Aiding and abetting monopolies is a recipe for abuse of consumers, high production costs and diminished rates of innovation.
Which is what makes Maryland’s latest blueprint to improve its public schools, the much-publicized Kirwan Commission plan, so disappointing. Its recommendations amount to enabling — indeed, expanding — monopoly power in our education market rather than disrupting it. Teddy Roosevelt and the “trust busters” must be spinning in their graves.
It’s not just that the commission wants to throw an extra $3.8 billion per year at Maryland’s public schools (by 2030), thus putting this monopoly — which already ranks 8th in the U.S. in cost-adjusted revenue per pupil — on an even richer diet. It’s that there are no monopoly-busting elements in the report at all. As one member lamented, the commission “refus[ed] to endorse or recommend any form of school choice.” No vouchers, no support for charters here.
Instead, the commission recommends adding universal pre-K to the public portfolio, enabling the union ranks to grow; more aggressively regulating teacher training and hiring, pleasing bureaucrats and the education schools; “strengthening” standards, further fueling bureaucratic growth.
In short, the Kirwan plan moves the education monopoly closer to ownership of the entire game board; its minions therefore love it. Parents, students and taxpayers, however, may feel that the only winning move in this strange game is not to play.