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Education needs to be a key election issue

As our governor’s race for 2014 comes more and more into focus, what should we demand of our candidates first and foremost?

For me, a very important litmus test for electability is good thinking on education. What does the candidate think is to be done to improve educational outcomes for Minnesotans?

We are at a cultural and economic crossroads with the retirement of the baby boomer generation. Education will lay the foundation for our future — for better or worse.

As baby boomers retire and draw on social security rent transfers for their daily upkeep, how will our economy grow fast enough with a smaller workforce to pay for all this unproductive tapping of our annual GDP?

We will need superstars working for our companies at historically unheard of levels of individual productivity to make it all work. Who is training them?

Education is both a private good — consumed by individuals — and a public good which radiates benefits across a culture and society.

We are all free riders, as the economists would analyze it, on educational outcomes. Without giving a special order, we nevertheless benefit indirectly and sometimes directly when others are well-educated and, conversely, we suffer indirectly and directly when they are not.

Moreover, since the dawn of time and the emergence of our species, the acquisition of skills makes possible human flourishing. It takes education to learn a language. The keeping of fire, the making of spear and arrow heads, the tracking of game, and the domestication of grains and animals — all and more were skills that make the survival of our species possible. The more the education, the better off were the free riders in those communities.

The learning of science and mechanics gave us the industrial revolution and modern civilization. The study of medicine gave us longer lives. Other disciplines gave us law and elegance in food, dress and architecture.

Without education we can’t amount to much at all. We let down those around us. Good education for ourselves and for others is in our best interest.

So I conclude that there is much to education which is a public good which therefore should be under the watchful and compassionate eye of the public and the governments it elects to office.

But, I ask, has our government in recent decades done well by us as far as education is concerned?

My answer is “No.”

To me, both our K-12 and post-secondary systems of education — even in caring and hard-working Minnesota — have become unacceptably dysfunctional and retrogressive. They are meeting their needs, not ours.

Two instances of concern for me: the continuing achievement gap for minority students and the mis-match of post-secondary degrees with workplace opportunities.

I put the blame for this and other failures on the socio-cultural structure of the education industry as permitted to grow by government indulgence.

Briefly put, that industry is permitted to enjoy too much monopoly rent-extraction so that it can ignore customer interests.

Rent-extraction is the economist’s term for certain power arrangements in markets. When the forces of supply and demand are weak due to the accumulation of power by a few hands, customers are ignored, quality suffers, prices rise, and owners of the power gain profits over and above what can be justified by the checks and balances of ordinary market efficiency.

Rents are payments often disconnected from productive contributions. They are associated with the application of power — legal or illegal — to markets. Mafia shakedowns are rent-extractions. Cartel agreements to raise prices are rent extractions. Fixing the LIBOR rate of interest is rent-extraction by big banks in London. Regulatory privileges — a lawyer’s license, a taxicab’s license, a liquor license, a cable company’s monopoly, a patent or trademark — restrain freedom of commerce and provide rents to the owner.

Any position that affords the receipt of income without demanding submission to market discipline gives rise to rent-extraction.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s economic system of cronyism, and similar preferential arrangements in the state controlled economy of China, are vast systems of rent-extraction. Rent-extraction supported landed aristocrats in France and Russia before the revolutions of 1789 and 1917.

And, rent-extraction permits irresponsibility and the willing acceptance of moral hazards as we have just seen with Putin’s recent adventure in Ukraine or with King Louis XIV when he said “apres moi le deluge” but did nothing to change his system of governance.

In our education system, rent-extraction is inextricably infused into teachers unions in K-12 schools and in tenure arrangements for professors in post-secondary institutions.

Given these structures of sinecures where income flows to those providing education without any close connection to responsibility to stakeholders such as students, the community, and employers, educational outcomes are biased in favor of those who extract the rent. The rent-seekers do as they please, not as they should.

The two systems intersect in professional schools of education. These schools use the tenure model of employment and dictate the conventional wisdom implemented by teachers unions in K-12 schools.

It is a model of professionalism whereby specialized training creates a select cadre of persons who have a preferential right from the government to practice their acquired skills. The government limits competition in teaching to those who have passed certain criteria of educational achievement. The practice adds a slice of enforced rent-extraction to market driven compensation rates.

The rent-extraction system we have put in place over the last 40 years of baby boomer self-indulgence is a system of credentialing individuals for a place in a meritocracy of rent-extracting elite employments.

As part of this professionalism, education provided by post-secondary institutions has become more and more trite and irrelevant. Tenured professors don’t like to teach much and press for the use of adjuncts in their place. When tenured professors do teach, it is usual very narrow subject matter tied to their most recent articles published in peer-reviewed journals and read only by tiny audiences of like-minded researchers.

But that achievement gets them tenure and promotion and job opportunities in more prestigious schools higher up on the ladder of professional publishing.

Education has contributed to the evisceration of our middle class by leaving our lower class intellectual comatose and by giving preference to an across-the-board white-collar professionalism in business, government, the professions, and everywhere else.

Try to get a job without showing your educational pedigree. Who won’t rack up more debt to go to a college or professional school with a “higher” ranking or better reputation?

In real terms both Minnesota and the United States spend much more today on education than ever before in our history. But, we are not getting historically high levels of intellectual and cultural achievement or economic growth.

Other countries — our economic competitors — are as good or better than we are in many skills.

So what should we do? Other than abolish tenure (but provide protection for freedom of thought and conscience) and take curriculum control and power to block innovations away from teachers unions — neither of which is really possible right now — we can return to vocational education in two forms — the vocation of being an educated person and a vocation which contributes to the economy.

But the challenge to tenure in K-12 public school employment accepted by a California Court is the stuff of wonder and excitement. Maybe there is a way out of our desert wanderings as we seek a promised land.

A recent article on human capital and long-term economic growth noted that in 19th century Britain the percentage of males enrolled in schools (50 percent) trailed the enrollments in Prussia (73 percent) and France (51 percent). But Britain’s economic development was more impressive.

The inference is that the skills necessary for efficient production were not learned in schools but through personal contacts and mentoring. Tacit knowledge, “knacks of the trade”, not book learning were more suited then to economic performance. Such education took place through observation, imitation, and practice.

France concentrated on education of an elite in culture and dialects. Prussia on disciplined citizens who would be obedient and also good soldiers when called upon to fight.

Britain rather excelled in apprenticeships.

China by contrast had a sophisticated and demanding educational infrastructure for centuries, but it called forth a narrow band of intellectualizations proper to a career (very rent-extracting by the way) as a mandarin civil servant and landlord.

We need in Minnesota today for our state government to focus less on providing rent-extraction opportunities to our educators and more on skill relevant apprenticing of young students to economic realities.

Education should not be above culture and society looking down to “uplift” them, but rather immersed in character building in the very young, mastery of language and math and skills acquisition in teenagers, and engendering love for the liberal arts, including an appreciation of the sciences, for those in college.


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