When to Defund
By Bryan Caplan
From my The Case Against Education:
When I argue education is largely wasteful signaling, most listeners yield. Popular resistance doesn’t kick in until I add, “Let’s waste less by cutting government spending on education.” You might think conceding the wastefulness of education spending would automatically entail support for austerity, but it doesn’t. The typical reaction is to confidently state, “Education budgets should be redirected, not reduced.”
Such confidence is misplaced. The discovery of wasteful spending does not magically reveal constructive alternatives. Prudence dictates a two-step response. Step 1: Stop wasting the resources. Step 2: Save those resources until you discover a good way to spend them. Not wasting resources is simple and speedy. Don’t just stand there; do it. Finding good ways to use resources is complex and slow. Don’t just do it; think it through. Remember: you can apply saved resources anywhere. Time and money wasted on education could pave roads, cure cancer, cut taxes, subsidize childbearing, pay down government debt before our Fiscal Day of Reckoning, or allow taxpayers to buy better homes, cars, meals, and vacations.
Suppose I prove your toenail fungus cream doesn’t work. I counsel, “Stop wasting money on that worthless cream.” Would you demur, “Not until we find a toenail fungus remedy that works”? No way. Finding a real remedy could be more trouble than it’s worth. It might take forever. Continuing to waste money on quackery until a cure comes into your possession is folly. Saying, “There must be a cure!” is childish and dogmatic. Maybe your toenails are a lost cause, and you should use the savings for a trip to Miami.
Are draconian education cuts really a good idea, especially for a society as rich as our own? Calling them “draconian” begs the question. If we’re not getting good value for our educational investments, we shouldn’t call deep cuts “draconian.” We should call the status quo “profligate.” Rich societies can afford to waste trillions. But why settle for that? Rich societies face countless opportunities. The trillions we spend boring youths might cure cancer, buy driverless cars, or end world hunger. Collective complacency seems harmless, but it kills by omission.
Human capital enthusiasts normally defend education as it is: existing schools greatly enhance students’ job skills. They accordingly perceive the signaling model as an attack on a system that enriches us all. In principle, however, a human capital enthusiast could accept the ubiquity of signaling, then cry out for reform. Instead of treating the human capital model as an accurate description of education, they could treat it as a noble prescription for education. Let’s transform our schools from time sinks to skill factories.
How can we make this happen? Finding better ways to teach students reading, writing, and math is the conventional path. Since an army of researchers and practitioners are already working on this problem, I have little constructive to add. Yet overall, we should be pessimistic about improving basic skills. Why? Because the goal has long been popular, the research has long been ample, yet basic skills remain mediocre. The logical inference is either (a) pinpointing ways to improve basic skills is elusive, or (b) schools spurn the methods that work. Intellectually, for example, the case for firing bad teachers is solid, but who expects it to prevail? While there are signs of academic progress, they mostly look like “teaching to the test.” Until uncoached adults score better on reading, writing, and math tests, we should presume basic skills remain static.