Chain Gang Education

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, April 19, 2004

Nevadans across the political spectrum do agree on at least one thing: their dissatisfaction with the state’s educational system.

That’s one of the early conclusions coming out of the series of education roundtables that the Nevada Policy Research Institute began conducting around the Silver State last week.

Virtually every participant—invited academic, business and political leaders—is citing personal experience of some significant level of failure by Nevada’s K-12-through-graduate-level system. This includes not only business people but also even teacher union officials.

To be sure, the sessions have not as yet—as if they ever could—come to a perfect consensus on Nevada’s ideal education system of the future.

Yet, paradoxically, the broad scope of the dissatisfaction implicitly points toward the kind of reforms that would bring the greatest amount of satisfaction to the largest number of Nevada citizens.

Consider that Nevada’s public education system—compared to those of most states— is uniquely monolithic. In other words, from pre-school to post-graduate school, virtually every educational institution in the Silver State is government-controlled and financed through government-imposed taxes. Of K-12 students in Nevada, only about 4 percent attend private schools (a doubling since 1990). And at the college or university level, no large private institutions, as in other states, seriously compete with those of the University & Community College System of Nevada.

The results of this atypical situation are profound. When any service—in this case, education—is provided only by government, it necessarily follows that the key choices having to do with that service will be made not by individuals, choosing in the marketplace, but through a collective process, jointly with others.

We of course have a name for that collective, chained-together process: It’s called politics.

One of the unique features of political decisions is that, by their very nature, they nearly always leave unhappiness in their wake. The very best that can be hoped for is that most people will find the outcome of the decision-making process more or less to their satisfaction.

Yet even in that rare circumstance, there will be—because it is a political decision—both winners and losers. Sometimes the losers will be those in the numerical minority. At other times, when special interests are able to harness government to their will, virtually everyone can end up losers.

This last happens every day in government. The reason—as theorists of the public choice school of economics point out—is that the benefits of a given piece of legislation are often highly concentrated, while its costs get diffused over a wide population.

Say that legislation—or a constitutional amendment—is proposed to immediately raise the salaries of 22,000 Nevada government employees by about $7,000 a year each. Every one of those 22,000 government employees now has strong financial incentives, as individuals, to lobby, argue and fight for that legislation.

On the other hand, for the Silver State’s two-and-a-quarter million taxpayers, the situation remains virtually unchanged. Under the proposal, the per capita increase in individual taxes is about $68.44 annually—wages for about five hours’ work for someone making $30,000 a year. Thus his or her motivation to spend time, money and energy fighting passage of the legislation—or even learning about it—is quite low.

The end result of these massively unbalanced incentives, of course, is massive government waste. Add in the inherent inability of government to respond quickly and flexibly to customer desires the way private entrepreneurs eagerly do every instant, and the conclusion becomes unavoidable: Nevada’s school system does as poorly as it does simply because it is what it is: a government monopoly where getting truckloads of taxpayer money delivered into your personal control is accomplished through political deals—not prowess at serving educational consumers.

It’s this that explains virtually every one of Nevada’s education-related scandals over recent decades—the K-12 system’s chronic failure to teach kids to read, write and calculate; the revealed abasement of Community College of Southern Nevada administrators in recent years before Assemblyman Wendell Williams and super-flack John Cummings; and the total failure of the state legislature to step forward and free Nevada’s kids, parents, taxpayers and teachers from state-imposed shackles to our always-failing state-socialist system.

In each case, education has been sacrificed to politics.

Long ago, state education funds should have started going directly to students’ families—to spend as parents want in a free education marketplace.

The day that finally happens, you’ll know that Nevada is, at last, honestly confronting its education problem.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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