Saturday, December 04, 2004

Government Failure: Essays Debunk Public Education

Book review by Chad Adams

(Edited by James Tooley and James Stanfield: Government Failure: E. G. West on Education; Institute for Economic Affairs; 2003; 201pp.; $15, paperback)

This illuminating book was designed to commemorate the achievements and to spread the ideas of the late Edwin G. West. Professor West, who lived from 1922 to 2001, did pioneering work in the economics and history of education and his studies have been critical in refuting the pretensions of government education. Those who wish to show that government fails to educate students well and to restore a free market in education will find that E.G. West was one of their greatest allies.

Gathered here are nine of West's essays on education. Professor James Tooley, who has made great contributions to the debate over government-provided education himself, writes in his introduction that he initially approached West's work with the intention of refuting it. As he read and thought about West's arguments, however, he found himself being won over. "For me, the fact that governments rightfully intervened in education was a taken-for-granted norm - so taken for granted that it didn't really come up in discussion," he writes. "Any deviance from the status quo - such as moves towards markets in education - needed to be justified, not state intervention itself. E. G. West's argument threatened to completely overturn this cozy presumption."

West's first discovery - still normally ignored in schools, departments, and institutes of education - was that, before the Forster Act of 1870 established the first tax-funded schools in England and Wales, school attendance and literacy rates were well above 90 percent. The educational situation in the United States at about the same time seems to have been sufficiently similar for Milton and Rose Friedman, while they were working on their book Free to Choose, to change their minds about government compulsion and funding by examining the works of West. Friedman would later recommend that the Hoover Institution give West the first Alexis de Tocqueville Award for the Advancement of Education Freedom. Friedman himself made the presentation.

West's wider international influence appears to have been greater than his effective influence on either the United Kingdom or the United States. The movement toward educational choice in the United States has been minimal, owing to the vociferous opposition of the education establishment of any movement whatever away from the status quo. In the United Kingdom, under the government of John Major, a limited voucher system known as Assisted Places was established, but, as the editors appear to have overlooked, it was immediately abolished by the incoming Blair administration in 1999.

The prime evidence of West's wider influence is provided by the fact that he was commissioned to produce, and duly produced, two papers for the International Finance Corporation ( the private finance arm of the World Bank). Those papers were entitled "Education with and Without the State" and "Education Vouchers in Practice and Principle: A World Survey." They actually succeeded in persuading the IFC and World Bank to revise their education policy to favor a greater role for the private sector.

Much of West's work was focused on the economics of politics (or public choice economics, as it is now called). As he said, "benevolent government does not exist. The political machinery is. in fact, largely. operated by interest groups, vote-maximizing politicians and self-seeking bureaucracies." As the writings of Myron Lieberman have taught us, the teacher unions are among the most powerful of such "self-seeking bureaucracies." West led the way in demonstrating the utter folly of expecting good educational results from a system dominated by the producers rather than the consumers of education services.

A particularly fascinating contribution in the current volume is Chapter 5, "The Economics of Compulsion," in which West used his knowledge both of history and public-choice economics to show that the compulsion to attend school has never been a major cause either of increased school attendance or any general improvement in human behavior.

The final essay in the book, "Education Without the State," speculates as to how much better off education consumers would have been if Britain had not taken the steps to establish universal tax-supported schooling. He concludes with these words of advice, "The choice of school movement, it is maintained, has been to a large extent misinformed. What is needed is choice in education."

Those who seek to move away from government-schooling monopoly, whether in the United Kingdom, the United States, or elsewhere in the world, will find this book to be of enormous value.



Useless courses are swamping useful ones but all he can do is wring his hands. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, of course. Who wouldn't? Giving the useful courses real priority is something that political correctness just forbids him from doing

Charles Clarke sought to shore up key university subjects yesterday by publishing a list of courses considered to be of "national strategic importance". The Education Secretary asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to report on whether intervention was needed to prevent universities abandoning subjects such as chemistry and Arabic. But he ruled out additional government funding to protect departments threatened by closure. Mr Clarke said that he had consulted Cabinet colleagues before compiling the list of courses considered vital to the national interest.

Arabic and Turkish language studies and courses on the former Soviet Union regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia were included for "strategic security and inter-cultural awareness reasons". Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and other Asian languages and area studies were listed "for business and trade purposes". Durham University decided last year to close its Department of East Asian Studies.

Mr Clarke placed science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses on the protected list, saying that they were necessary to protect Britain's productivity. Several universities have announced plans to end the study of chemistry. The latest, Exeter, declared last week that closure of its department, along with at least one other, was necessary to cut losses of œ3 million. It last night approved a proposal by Professor Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor, to wind down the music department over the next three years. The university is still discussing the fate of the Italian department, which is also under threat. Meanwhile, about 1,000 students protested on Monday against Cambridge University's plans to close its architecture department. Mr Clarke said vocational courses of interest to employers in areas that were of growing importance to the economy, such as the creative industries, should also be covered, with degrees relating to the new member countries of the European Union.

Mr Clarke asked David Young, the chairman of Hefce, to advise on how best to retain degree courses in these subjects. But he said that universities remained independent bodies, free to make their own decisions, and he was "not looking for a new set of possible initiatives, nor a bid for extra funds". Mr Clarke said: "Any sensible government needs to take a long-term view of what our students are studying and whether we have enough graduates in the subjects needed to help our economy and society thrive." He said these subjects had been highlighted because there were "particular concerns that on current trends we may not be able to produce enough graduates in these fields."

A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said that the initiative had been planned for several months and was not a response to Exeter's announcement. The plan to close Exeter's chemistry department has already prompted Sir Harry Kroto, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for discovering a new form of carbon, to return an honorary degree in protest. The Association of University Teachers said that Mr Clarke had done too little too late to prevent a growing crisis.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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