Public Schools: For Children or Bureaucrats?

For many Lithuanians the educational system and public schools have become a real headache. Parents complain about the quality of schooling their children receive; teachers groan about their low salaries; students are displeased with their teachers and teaching methods; and the authorities are dissatisfied with everyone’s dissatisfaction. All measures that have been taken so far to amend the situation – revising the curriculum, differentiating schooling, streamlining the school network and introducing meticulous regulation of teachers’ salaries – have been futile. The problem lies in the system itself.
All reform efforts that have been taken so far have originated from the existing defective system. All of them were based on an erroneous assumption that someone – a minister or an MP – knows the number and types of schools people need, that teachers’ competence can be measured with the help of tables and formulae, and that the curriculum can be minutely regulated and imposed on children from the top. Students’ needs and parents’ opinions about their children’s education are left outside this system. The right to make decisions that will determine children’s education and future is entrusted to bureaucrats who haven’t the faintest idea about the families the children have grown in, their unique “content,” or their specific needs and expectations. A system in which consumers have no choice and service suppliers have no incentive to enhance the quality of their work is feeble and ineffective.
Every child is unique and there are myriad teaching methods, therefore parents should be allowed to choose an educational establishment, curriculum and teaching methods they consider to be the most suitable for their children, while schools should be allowed to compete for students. The network of schools should be the result of parents’ choices rather than bureaucrats’ fantasies. Schools, in their turn, should compete solely for parents’ choice, not for bureaucrats’ favours.
In order to create such a system, the mechanism and funding of the existing system should be replaced. Schools should be financed not for their premises and teachers but for the quality of services. Funding of educational services should be based on the principle “money follows students.” For this principle to be implemented, it is necessary to calculate how much the schooling of one student costs and let this amount of public funding follow every student to any school they choose. With this principle in effect, schools would be financed in proportion to the number of schoolchildren, regardless of the type of ownership or other criteria. The amounts allotted for each student could differ only depending on grades or for children with disability (although in the latter case it would be more appropriate to provide social benefits directly to the disabled person). No other exceptions, nor additional funding for such expenditures as repair work or others, should be allowed. Otherwise, money would be allocated, as today, not for the recipients of educational services, but for suppliers thereof. This would only enhance the existing ineffectiveness of the system.
The principle that “money follows students” would set the market and competition mechanisms in motion: schools that would serve children’s needs best and offer proper education would attract more students. Under-performing schools would languish and disappear. New schools would be established in those areas where they are needed most. There would be no central planning of the network of schools as the density and the size of schools would be determined by the demand for their services. Public schools, although funded by the state, would compete to attract more students. They would compete not by demanding more money from the state but by seeking to propose attractive packages of services.
This dictates another condition for the system. Public schools should be independent in dealing with managerial affairs and making decisions regarding the services that they provide, or the content of schooling. A school’s principal should be responsible for setting teachers’ salaries and deciding what property the school needs. Public schools should only be required to provide a certain minimum package of state-funded services to children. Everything else should be left to the school’s discretion and inventiveness.
If money followed students, all public schools would find themselves on the market. They would have to compete for children and efficiently use their limited resources. In such conditions, private agents are the most efficient, as they themselves are responsible for all mistakes and losses they make. Therefore any thorough reform should embrace the privatisation of the existing public schools.
It is a fallacy to think that low-income individuals will not afford private schooling, because public funding will follow children to private schools as well. There is never a vacancy in the market. If there is a demand to purchase minimal education, there will always be suppliers to offer such services. There are countless examples of services when funding is public, but service providers are private. Road repair work is a perfect example. Even though in this case the state is the only purchaser, there are many private firms that compete in this sector. In the case of education, the purchasers would be private individuals, students’ parents. Only for the time being they would purchase services with the taxes they pay.
Such reforms would benefit everyone involved: they would ensure better education for children, higher salaries for teachers, and a more efficient use of taxpayers’ money. Education is too serious a domain to be left in the hands of the state.