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16 September 2014 21:18 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paul Berkowitz

Public education doesn't need fixing; it needs to be euthanised

  • Paul Berkowitz
The failures of provincial education departments can keep the news cycle ticking for weeks and weeks. In the meantime we can indulge in outrage, introspection, analysis, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But while politicians and bureaucrats play pass-the-buck and mobilise task teams, the private sector is responding to the crisis in ways that will reduce dependence on public education and the long shadow it casts on our lives.

The parent goes up to the teacher and says, well, I am not satisfied with what you are doing, and the teacher can say, well, tough, you can't take him away, you can't remove him, you can't do what you like, so go away and stop bothering me. That can be the attitude of some teachers today – it often is. But now that the positions are being reversed and the roles are changed, I can only say tough on the teachers – let them pull their socks up and give us a better deal, and let us participate more.”

The above quote is a transcript from an interview with a parent whose child attended Newtown Primary School in Ashford, England. The school was part of an experiment with a school voucher system that paid for parents to send their children to any school of their choice. The interview is part of a TV series (and book) entitled Free To Choose, by the economists Milton and Rose Friedman. 

In this particular chapter, focusing on education, the Friedmans looked at the failures in the education system and possible solutions provided by the free market. Unsurprisingly, the suggestion of a school voucher system was met with opposition and even hostility from teachers’ unions and the education bureaucracy. Parents, however, loved the idea. 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months or you work in the Department of Basic Education, you’ll know that education in South Africa is badly broken. School books aren’t delivered for half the year. Blind pupils are receiving books meant for sighted pupils. Dodgy tenders and middlemen are highly correlated with inflated costs of school supplies and non-delivery of orders. 

The failure by the state to deliver quality education is exacerbated by socioeconomic problems like poverty and broken families, but these are extenuating factors and not underlying causes. The failures of state education should also not be the starting point of any analysis. To frame the problem in terms of fixing state failures assumes that the state should be at the centre of education. 

If we were to describe the education market – in any country – in the normal dry economic terms, the following characteristics would apply almost universally. There’s a dominant supplier (the state) with the power to enforce market standards, including the syllabus and the minimum qualifications required for teachers. There are all sorts of barriers to entry, from copyrights on teaching materials to the abovementioned teacher qualifications. 

Consumption of education is geographically specific, and a family can only realistically choose from a handful of schools, particularly a poor family. This creates effective oligopolies in almost any poor part of any country. 

Teachers’ unions are typically strong, well-organised and quite good at shielding their members from market-related competition like performance-linked pay and (in a few cases) from performing at all. 

If I had to tell the story of a teachers’ union that lobbied successfully for an increasing percentage of tax revenues, that shouted down attempts to hold its members responsible for minimum teaching standards, and whose members aren’t fired even if they’re found having sex on the school premises, some of you would swear blind that I must be taking SADTU’s name in vain. 

Well, yes, SADTU would fit the bill. But so would the California Teachers Association. In an article entitled ‘The Worst Union In America’  the City Journal describes how the state’s teachers’ union has taken an increasing share of the state budget and blocked most education reforms, while standards have plummeted. 

California is a pretty rich place. If it were an independent country, its economy would rank in the world’s top ten. The California Teachers Association ensured in 1988 that at least 40% of total state spending would go to education. Somehow, inexplicably, this flood of milk from the state’s teat did not translate into higher educational standards. 

California’s education is at the bottom of the national rankings and the state’s finances are in the toilet. It has a $16bn deficit to plug and its debt rating, already the lowest of any of the states, has been given the wagging finger treatment by Standard & Poor.

SADTU itself is the fourth-largest union in South Africa by membership. All other things being equal, it should move even higher up the rankings in the future. Education is a strong growth industry in a country where over 40% of the population is aged 19 or younger. SADTU’s strength within the alliance has grown significantly, and will continue to grow.

SADTU has changed dramatically since its early days. It’s grown exponentially in the last decade and has attracted many members with its promises of sinecure and no heavy lifting. My apologies to those union members who feel their integrity is under attack. It’s true that teaching is a calling and a vocation for many people of principle. It’s also true that, human nature being what it is, the useless and otherwise unemployable will always be attracted to jobs where there is little pressure to perform and almost no risk of being fired. Like mushrooms that sprout after the rain, it’s a simple case of cause and effect, of rational behaviour reacting to available incentives. 

SADTU are not the only ones to blame. They’re looking after their members’ interests, and that is exactly what is to be expected of them. Any appeals to a higher calling or the welfare of the kiddies are charming, naïve and utterly misplaced.  

In the case of the missing Limpopo textbooks, it’s not even SADTU’s fault. The culprits for that educock-up include the minister of basic education, her DG, the Limpopo department of education (and its MEC) and EduSolutions. Also Hendrik Verwoerd and Bantu Education. The beauty of the problem is that it’s become so big, so ubiquitous and so endemic that everyone is to blame for the mess. If everyone is to blame, then nobody is responsible.

Even if the president were to fire his minister (after Mangaung, obviously) the rusty education bureaucracy would continue to creak along, unoiled, spreading tetanus and eye infections wherever it existed. 

Luckily, the private sector and civil society are increasingly providing solutions to fix the mess of public education. Sometimes this occurs through new technology that changes the fundamentals of the market, such as providing open-source teaching resources, breaking down some of the barriers to market entry. Sometimes it takes a public interest law centre to force the government to do its job a bit better. Sometimes it takes a visionary educator to set up an independent school that delivers incredible results with few resources.

There’s little chance of educational reform being undertaken from within government. There are too many special interests to satisfy, and there’s too little political will to challenge the unions or the bureaucrats. The solutions will have to come from the private sector.

While the public education system continues to ossify, costs of bandwidth and smartphones continue to fall as the number of ICT platforms providing educational content rises. Young entrepreneurs continue to bring innovations to market in the way that subject content is provided, in training methods and in learner support systems. Low-fee schools continue to pop up in downtown skyscrapers and one-room buildings. 

I made a request on Twitter a few weeks ago for links to people and businesses in the private sector that provide educational solutions. The response was immediate and overwhelming; I had to populate a spreadsheet just to keep track of the different initiatives, companies and individuals in the private education space.

I will share as many of these stories as possible with Daily Maverick readers in the weeks and months to come, in the hope that the success stories will find a greater audience and will ultimately bring benefits to more South Africans who don’t currently have that many choices. For almost a hundred years, the teacher has had a greater say in a child’s education than that child’s parents. It is a perverse market where the seller can supply an inferior product and the buyer is forced to make the purchase. It is time to restore the balance of power to the parents, and to ensure that poor South Africans are not denied the education that they deserve. DM

  • Paul Berkowitz
PaulBerkowitzBW

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

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