The Curse of the Undead


Public Education: An Autopsy, by Myron Lieberman, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 379 pages, $27.95

It is customary to wait until the patient is dead before starting an autopsy. But Myron Lieberman has decided that public education is "beyond life-sustaining measures," and he's impatient to explore what went wrong.

It's a big job. The decline of America's education system has been chronicled in a series of publications with increasingly dire titles. First we learned Why Johnny Can't Read. Then we found out that Johnny's reading problems made America A Nation at Risk. Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong revealed that, in addition to being illiterate, Johnny was amoral. (No need to be told Why Johnny Hasn't Graduated Yet.) Now, in the same way that Jason Goes to Hell promises to be the end of the venerable Friday the 13th saga, Public Education: An Autopsy claims to be the last word on our failed educational system.

While it may not be the last word, the book does present an excellent overview of what's wrong with public education, concluding that the only workable cure—school choice—is virtually inevitable. Lieberman writes: "The promarket forces have one ineradicable advantage in the years ahead. That advantage is the inherent futility of conventional school reform."

This conclusion is especially telling coming from Lieberman, a former public-school teacher who maintained an "optimistic attitude toward public education until the 1980s." A self-described "slow learner," the 74-year-old now contends that "the United States has been prosperous and democratic not because of public education but in spite of it."

This book is different from other accounts of educational failure because it looks not only at America's declining schools but also at the political structures underlying them. Lieberman provides a peek behind the curtain at the teachers' unions, school administrators, and elected officials who control public education. His experience as a teacher in the St. Paul public schools and as a district negotiator gives him an insider's perspective, and he is at his best when describing the inherent, systemic problems that plague our nation's schools. Lieberman bashes bureaucracy rather than bureaucrats.

In public education, he has an ample target. The nation's 2.4 million public-school teachers are assisted by an additional 2.1 million administrative and support personnel. That represents one public-school employee for every nine students.

Despite all this staff, Lieberman reports, fewer than one-third of 17-year-olds could place the Civil War in the correct half century when asked in a 1986 survey. Though the 1980s saw real per-pupil expenditures increase by 36 percent, students in the United States lag behind those in almost every other industrialized country. A 1991 report from the U.S. Department of Education assessing performance on an international test of math and science found that "the U.S. students scored in the middle among the 10-year-olds, near the bottom among the 14-year-olds, and dead last among the 18-year-olds."

Lieberman's explanation for this failure is simple: Like any government monopoly, public education tends to serve the people who run the system rather than the people for whom the system was ostensibly established. As long as schools are run by political processes, they will not be held accountable for their performance. When government's interest as a producer of education conflicts with its role as guardian of children's interests, it's not hard to predict which will prevail. Backed up by an impressive array of data, Lieberman shows that public education's failure cannot be fixed by hard-working education reformers. Instead, he envisions a three-sector competitive market of public, nonprofit, and for-profit schools.

Among other things, a competitive market would supply important information about schools that is currently difficult to obtain. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education reports that public schools spend $5,452 per pupil. But this figure doesn't include capital expenses, interest on past capital expenditures, or federal programs such as Chapter 1, Head Start, and drug-abuse education. In all, Lieberman conservatively locates an additional $26.7 billion in tax money, meaning that the official figure understates the true cost of education by at least 13 percent. Similarly, it is hard to assess teacher compensation because information about their benefits, which tend to be more generous in the public sector, is not readily available. Lieberman says unions track this information but do not release it, since it undermines the myth of the underpaid teacher.

Lieberman ignores most of the philosophical arguments for school choice, giving only cursory treatment to the inherent desirability of allowing parents to choose schools for their children. But he does show how the public schools have been used to promote various ideological agendas and contends that such teaching is alienating parents and undermining support for public education. "The idea that giving condoms to students free of charge and without parental consent is essential to the legitimate objectives of public education is simply indefensible," he writes. "The public school forces may win many of these battles, but each victory brings them closer to losing the war."

While Lieberman's analysis is generally sound, some of the topics he covers have only a tenuous connection to the issue at hand. For instance, he writes at some length about the harmful effects of feminism, "non-sexist" education, and the abandonment of traditional gender roles. Such opinionizing is distracting. Lieberman could simply have pointed out that different people have different views and that choice allows parents to select whatever school best reflects their values.

This book covers a lot of ground, and at times the material is disjointed. A discussion of birth rates and immigration patterns is followed by a critique of multi-culturalism, which is followed by a discussion of public choice theory. On the other hand, the book is filled with intriguing information. Opening it to a page at random, one is liable to find a gem, a new fact or argument that illuminates the underlying reasons for the failure of government schools. Lieberman discusses everything from grade inflation to racial bias in standardized testing, usually bringing an insightful, common-sense view to the topic that challenges the prevailing attitudes of the education profession.

The last few years have seen a dramatic shift in popular sentiment toward public education. Once sacred institutions, public schools are now popular targets. School reform has been exposed as a charade, and parents and taxpayers are demanding real change. In the current climate, Lieberman's Autopsy may not be so premature after all.

John O'Leary is a policy analyst for the Reason Foundation.