The newspaper recently reported suggestions from Gov. Paul LePage to change the way in which education is funded.

The state’s various public school systems receive roughly half the cost of educating children from the state treasury. The rest is paid by the local school districts. The exact ratio depends upon the local tax base and school population.

In the Waterville School system, for example, this state contribution amounts to about $6,500 per student. LePage proposes to let this state contribution follow the student. If a Waterville student attended a private school, therefore, that $6,500 would be paid to the school he attends, not the school in the district where his parents live.

Historically, tuition at Maine’s private schools has not been subsidized by the state. Prospective families pay substantial tuition costs to the private school, as well as the local and state taxes that fund the school their children will not attend.

In reality, one organization, the local school district, controls the entire market of K-12 education in Maine. In economics, we call such market control a monopoly.

There are many reasons to have a monopoly. For example, public utilities have huge capital outlays and are granted monopoly status by the Legislature in the interests of providing efficient service. Service vendors in parks are given monopoly status to preserve the environment; patent holders are given monopolies to encourage innovation.

The list is quite long, but, in each and every case, the monopoly provides less service at a higher cost than it would in a free market.

This feature of monopolies is modeled out in every Introduction to Economics class in the nation; it is actually part of the high school advanced placement examination.

In plain speak, the force that makes service industries provide more goods and services at a lower cost is competition. Firms and organizations in a competitive and free market realize that if they do not provide a quality service at a reasonable price, the client will take his business to other vendors. This forces the organization to be constantly at the top of its game, to monitor its cost structure and quality of product and to innovate at every opportunity.

Without a free market, without competitors, this very natural, yet invisible, hand cannot work.

Public education has had a monopoly since the days of New England Puritanism because no one else wanted it. Private academies and schools sprang up in several different areas, but, for the most part, their services were designed for the more affluent.

Most citizens thought that the public schools did a creditable job in preparing youth for participation in American life and saw public education as a vehicle for promoting social values and an American culture.

Unlike other productive organizations, public education took over the market not by design, but by default.

There was never anything sacrosanct about public education, never any reason to make it a state-sponsored monopoly. It just grew up that way and we, in turn, got used to it.

Although the condition and quality of education in Maine is certainly open to debate, it cannot be disputed that something needs to change. Attempts to restructure and organize public schools have been going on for decades, yet all have either completely failed or had mixed results.

Maine High School Summary Reports ( consistently show that about one-half or our students are either “partially” or “substantially below” proficient in reading, writing, science and mathematics.

The cost of providing that education is the only thing that has risen unequivocally, even after the trauma of redistricting schools statewide.

This is not to say that public school workers are in some sort of conspiracy or that they purposefully try to inhibit change or innovation. Like most craftsmen, teachers and administrators are hard-working individuals who try to do the right thing. They believe in their mission and advocate fiercely for their students.

Yet they work in a monopolistic environment where children are going to come into their school no matter what the quality of instruction. No invisible hand exerts subtle pressure to produce a better product at lower cost. What compelling reason is there for public schools to change substantively?

Many will say that education is not a market and should not be analyzed so, that young people’s education should not be seen as a business.

Yet the essence of this issue is not really about dollars and cents or monetary value, but rather, being human. We do not aspire for great heights without a challenge to whom we are and what we can do, and that is the very thing the institution of public education is missing.

Alan Haley teaches economics and history at Waterville Senior High School. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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