Do you ever get the sense that fixing our nation’s ill-functioning public-education system is like trying to retrofit a belching, century old coal-fired power plant into a modern, clean-energy facility? Moving forward sometimes starts with a bulldozer – and the realization that one occasionally needs to start from scratch.

I’ve been writing about education reform since the beginning of my journalism career and nothing ever really changes. Policy makers wrestle with the same critical concerns today – students who are ill prepared for a modern work force, low graduation rates, a dumbed down curriculum and persistent inequities – that they did 30 years ago.

Education officials celebrate the errant bright spot. We hear about upticks in college acceptance rates. Bad news often follows, however, such as the growing need for college-level remedial courses. Educators always lament a lack of funding, even as spending levels soar.

More than 40 percent of the state’s general fund budget goes to K-14 education, and an election cycle doesn’t pass without a host of school bonds. Yet, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we realize that nothing gets any better. School districts use the new funds to build fancy facilities, give raises to their unionized workers and hire legions of new administrators.

It’s still nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher, or to reward the ones who are doing great. Even noteworthy reforms, such as California’s system of charter schools, only nibble around the edges. And it was only a matter of time before special interest groups helped elect a governor who has rolled back that alternative system whose relative success has proved embarrassing to the status quo.

One recent news story caught my eye. “California school districts, already struggling to find enough teachers for classrooms, are facing a substitute shortage so severe that officials at smaller districts fear temporary school closures,” reported EdSource. Add that to the list of other travesties, such as districts that could never master the basics of distance learning and unions that fought re-openings.

There are few things as important as educating our children, yet, as a society, we don’t act that way. We certainly don’t place strict demands on the extra spending. We complain if our latest high-tech gadget feature doesn’t work as promised, but tolerate a public-school system that was built at a time when there were no telephones, automobiles or radios.

The editorial board of this newspaper recently met with some Orange County CEOs who are admirably trying to boost career opportunities for the majority of students who are not going to attend a university. That problem is acute. I’ve seen it in my life – young people who graduate high school but have no marketable skills, then spend their years in low-paying, unsatisfying work.

It reminds me of the refrain in Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.” These days, they put you in a little cubicle, in a fast food restaurant or sign you up for the ever-expanding number of state welfare benefits – itself a testament to our failing education system.

Maybe the problem is more fundamental. Even parents of children who are under-educated daily would be aghast at what I’m proposing – namely the separation of school and state. We instead blithely accept the status quo and keep our educational debates narrowly focused on money, training, legislation and modest reforms. I hold no illusions. The public school establishment is powerful.

But sometimes it’s worth engaging in a thought experiment, even if it has a ballpark-zero chance of ever happening. What if we actually let the market work? Before you get angry, think about an analogy that I often use. Food is even more important than education. Imagine if we distributed groceries the way that we distribute learning.

You could only shop at grocery stores in your district. The people who run them might not be competent, but they were placed there with the support of the employees who work at the store. If you don’t like the selection or atmosphere, you could move to a district with a better store – or spend your time electing new managers.

This would be a crazy way to provide food to hungry people, but it’s no crazier than the way we provide education to learning-hungry students. In a market-based education system, we’d have every manner of offering, ranging from the equivalent of Whole Foods to Winco. Poor people couldn’t fare any worse than they do under our supposedly egalitarian system.

The state could provide subsidies to those who can’t afford it at a fraction of the cost of the current system, but at least we’d have a system built around the key principle that assures the provision of other quality goods and services: competition. Again, this is just a thought experiment. But it’s more defensible than allowing the current outdated model to belch along for another three decades.

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