Opeds

Public education is a step back

Last month was back to school for millions of children, and all that comes with it : buying school supplies and clothes, apprehension from the younger children, the beginning of new routines. But for most of these children, it also means a return to bureaucratic brain-cramming, rather than getting the education they deserve.

Let’s face it : most of us are dissatisfied with public education, at least according to recent surveys by Portrait of America. More than three-quarters of people think that parents should have the power to make decisions about education, and less than one-third consider public schools to be the best way to educate children.

People often complain that children don’t acquire basic skills properly anymore. Or as the joke goes, graduates don’t know how to read or write, so when comes the time to find a job, they go in politics.

Sarcastic jokes about the quality of public education aside, we should have quite real, concrete qualms against it, based on what we can observe. The alternatives have been proven to be superior time after time. Compare private and public schools, for example. The percentage of K-12 students in private schools in the last thirty years has oscillated between 10% and 15%.

By examining the average costs per student in private schools versus public schools, we find that private school comes out one-third less expensive. Of course, we do not see concretely the cost of public schools because they are hidden in our taxes. Also, private schools tend to reward the quality of teachers rather than seniority or diplomas. Those teachers also report a greater satisfaction, school climate, and control over teaching methods than public teachers. Private schools regularly outperform by 150% and more on subjects such as reading and mathematics.

There has also been many news reports on the improvement of services after better competition had been introduced (especially in the area of governmental spending), because it forces public schools to raise their standards. Racial integration has also been more efficient in private systems.

What about homeschooling ? It may seem like a fringe solution, but nearly one million children today are under homeschooling. Nobody doubts its efficiency : when done properly and on a voluntary basis, homeschooling children can largely outperform school-educated children. We all perform in things we are more interested in, or in which we have been shown interest. The main argument against homeschooling seems to be the lack of socialization : but with the “quality” of life that children have in schools, staying at home is probably a much better idea.

All of these choices may seem complicated, but it really boils down to one simple thing : either children are educated in a manner prescribed by bureaucrats and their arbitrary, misguided decisions, or in the manner you find most beneficial for their development.

The notion of public education is fundamentally flawed. It serves no role that other types of education could, and lets politicians have their say in your child’s education. Of course, contrarily to private schools, public schools are not accountable to the public, and may impose any repression on children without parental choice, as we have seen with the ridiculous “zero tolerance” craze.

Some speak of vouchers as a solution, but it only puts more power in the hands of governments to determine what is an “acceptable” school to permit the use of vouchers on, and how to distribute those vouchers. This would have the consequence of reducing every school to the lowest common denominator. It is a far cry from a voluntary, free market solution.

Should we continue to let self-serving politicians decide what to teach our children and perpetuate a cycle of propaganda, delinquency, and miseducation ? I think the answer is obvious : it makes no sense from a value-based, economical, or educational standpoint. The education of our children is the most important foundation for a healthy society, and we must say no to bureaucratic control.

Stemming freedom

The new edge of science, genetic research, is shaking up our world, and the recent fights over stem-cell research were only the latest manifestation of this phenomenon. More and more ethical and political questions come to the forefront as we come to understand human nature, and how to manipulate it. Unfortunately, by banning cloning, while at the same time pumping tax money in stem-cell research, we are taking the easy way out.

Last July, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for a ban on human cloning, a ban which threatens whole areas of genetic research, under penalties such as 10 years of prison or up to a million dollars. There is no hope for other medical applications of cloning either, for while organ cloning is not illegal yet, the trade of organs is still illegal and constantly decried.

Yet there are precious little arguments put forward by opponents of cloning. We may not like the idea, but that doesn’t mean it should be illegal. In fact, banning cloning is one of the worst possible political actions – it is the equivalent of saying that we do not own our genetic material, that our whole body belongs to the state. No one except the staunchest totalitarian would agree with such a proposition ! And yet this is precisely what most countries in the world, including the United States, are now putting forward.

One argument put forward by opponents of cloning is that it is an attack against human dignity. Yet this is absurd. Twins are a form of natural cloning. Is having a twin brother or sister an attack on one’s identity or dignity ? No, it is a simple fact of life. Rather, it is the bans on cloning and genetic research that are an attack on our dignity.

Not that anyone opposing cloning would benefit from such spurious laws. As the government is a total failure in any social war it attempts (as we have seen with the wars against drugs and poverty), we should expect, as quipped Harry Browne during the last election, to see fifteen Bill Clintons and ten Al Gores walking around, in short order.

On the other hand, the federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research is a sign of the dichotomous thinking that pervades modern politics. No actual free market established on anything – either banning, or funding with our tax money. One wonders if Bush is doing it on purpose.

This funding is not positive for the future of medical research, rather the contrary. The restrictions that came with it are a sign that the Republican administration is ready to take the reins of stem-cell research for its own purposes, and the use of our tax money shows that it has no scruples in using us to do so.

Another popular target of anti-technological ire is genetically modified foodstuffs. Despite luddite protestations, the benefits of such products is undeniable, notably by making third-world agriculture more efficient, raising caloric intake in poor nations by up to one-third (Thomas R. DeGregori, Institute of Economic Affairs). This puts politicians in a bind, because they can’t recant from their “foreign aid at any price” position either.

While a case can be made that modified products should be checked for safety, this is true of all products, to a certain extent. There is no need to single them out or enforce labeling, except to promote an “all-natural” agenda, which is certainly not the government’s role.

It is certainly true that genetic manipulations are not without danger, even if done legally – it would be thick-headed to think otherwise. But this is true of any technology. Even the most destructive of them all, the nuclear bomb, also brought us the benefits of nuclear energy. No tool is inherently good or evil : it is how we use technology that is important.

There are interesting philosophical questions involved in genetic manipulation. What is a human being ? Should we take over our own evolution, and how ? These are profound questions, but to constantly evoke human nature to censor any rational discussion of the issues is doctrinary, and to deny human rights is not the answer.

Marijuana Blues

The 30-year-old debate on the decriminalization of marijuana is now engaging in some new twists and turns. Right now, the Parliament is debating the issue of whenever possessing small quantities of marijuana should still be a criminal offense. The end result of Bill C-344, however, would be rather slim : instead of facing up to five years of prison, offenders would have the burden of a heavy fine.

This would have the advantage of freeing up judiciary and police resources, and some police chiefs are calling for a legalization of such small-scale possession. It is true that a large part of our judiciary system is clogged by drug offenses – according to Fraser Institute, they represent approximately one-quarter of prison sentences. Social planners also like the fact that marijuana does not make victims, and has some kind of redeeming value.

Such pragmatic considerations are interesting and make nice headlines, but should not dictate our attitude. How decried would be someone who considered, for example, the legality of murder based on what it gives or takes away from society, and conceded that maybe a little bit of murder was better than none !

In the same manner, the issue of the already-existing legality of “medical marijuana” as painkiller is a red herring. The best demonstration of this is the limitation imposed on the famous “Marijuana Teahouse”, which opened in Vancouver at the beginning of the month : Health Canada regulations include the necessity of being accompanied by an adult, and to be chronically ill. It is obvious that the intention of the government is to bank on the popularity of medical uses for marijuana, and not to bring any permanent drug freedom.

It is a red herring because it permits the government to ignore the real issue, and to continue the costly and damageable drug war. The real issue is : who does our body belong to ? Ourselves, or the whim of social planners ? This is a fundamental question, but one which politicians ignore, for the simple reason that they have already decided. Yet we cannot afford to ignore it.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have a criminal record for possession of marijuana, and more than two thousands are arrested every year – not to mention the lives that are destroyed by the illegal drug trade. There is a critical need to stop what Eugene Oscapella, a founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, calls “Chemical McCarthyism”. We need to really understand that drugs are dangerous – and all the more reason to encourage addicted people to get help instead of facing arrests. Such an option is far preferable to politicians and public figures inflating their wallets by supporting the drug war.