Hobgoblins

HOBGOBLINS….McMegan muses today about education policy and wonders if the issues are similar to those in healthcare, where American liberals are usually in favor of single-payer healthcare (like Medicare, where doctors all work for themselves but service is paid for by the feds) but not so excited about single-provider healthcare (like Britain’s NHS, where the doctors all work directly for the government):

This is a common enough argument in debates over healthcare success — I’m for single payer, not the NHS! — but it never occurred to me to wonder if those people felt the same way about school funding.

Question of the day: should one be required to stake out a consistent policy across school and healthcare funding? Or can some single-payer supporter explain to me why healthcare will work with what is basically a voucher system, but education won’t?

My initial answer is no, there’s no reason to be consistent here. Healthcare has some unique characteristics that (I believe) end up pointing toward single-payer as the best, most efficient solution for universal coverage. It’s different from the defense industry or the housing industry or the soft drink industry, all of which operate better using different models.

Still, what is the difference? I’d argue that a big part of it is regulation. Healthcare is a very heavily regulated industry and there are a broad variety of mechanisms that work to ensure a minimum level of competence, from basic research all the way down the food chain to your family pediatrician. Obviously these mechanisms aren’t perfect, but overall they do a pretty good job. Speaking generally, the government can pretty much assume that the pills you’re taking are safe and that any doctor who’s board certified and follows the rules isn’t a crackpot who’s convinced that regular bleedings are the answer to all your health problems.

Schools are different. Private schools not only don’t have to meet minimum standards, they fight like cats and dogs to insist on their right not to meet minimum standards. And that’s just not going to fly. If you want taxpayer dollars, you have to meet taxpayer standards. Otherwise you’re just shoveling cash to anyone who can pack kids into a room that meets the building code.

This is, roughly speaking, why I favor charter schools but not vouchers. Charter schools allow experimentation, which I like, and freedom from some of the worst of the public bureaucracy, but still have to meet some defined standards. I’m not worried much about the standards at $15,000-a-year private schools, but I am worried about the standards at storefront operations in the inner city. The prospect of massive abuse is just too great.

For a variety of reasons, I suspect that private schools will never accept any serious oversight from the state. For that reason, I think that just as the idiosyncrasies of the healthcare market point to single-payer as the best solution for universal health coverage, the idiosyncrasies of the education market point to a combination of public and charter schools as the best solution for universal education coverage. Charter school advocates pretty loudly claim that they all have the silver bullet for educating the kids who are most poorly served by public schools today, and I say, let ’em try. Maybe some of them do. And as long as they’re held to a reasonable minimum set of standards, the ones that don’t probably aren’t going to do any worse than public schools.