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by William H. Benson

March 18, 2010

     The numbers are discouraging. In the first decade of the new millennium, only 68% of any freshman student could expect to graduate from high school four years later: 72% for girls and only 64.1% of the boys. As of 2003-2004, Nebraska ranked number one in its graduation rate, 87.6%, and Nevada ranked 51st, 57.4%, lower than Washington D.C.

     And if a student happens by luck or pluck to graduate from high school, he or she faces an uphill battle at a college where graduation rates are even more abysmally lower: only 56% of the incoming white freshman students will graduate six years later, versus 43% of the Hispanic students and 40% of the African-American. Because so many bright students lack the funds and the emotional support, in absolute discouragement, they quit.

     These numbers underline U. S. education’s dismal state. Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said, “there was such a dramatic achievement gap in the United States, far larger than in other countries, between socioeconomic classes and races. It was a scandal of monumental proportions, that there were two distinct school systems in the U.S., one for the middle class and one for the poor.”

     Last week, it was announced that twenty-nine of Kansas City’s sixty-one schools will be closed by next fall in order to stave off the district’s bankruptcy.

     On February 23, in Rhode Island, Superintendent Frances Gallo, who oversees Central Falls High School fired all 74 of the school’s teachers. She had asked them “to work 25 minutes longer each day, eat lunch with the students once a week, and agree to be evaluated by a third party.” Because the teachers refused her requests—unless they were paid additional money, at a rate of $90 an hour—she fired them all, and received the commendation of both the Secretary of Education and President Obama.

     Sometimes, not always but sometimes, it helps to trace our way back to a difficulty’s origin to see how we arrived at where we are. In 1647, the General Court of Massachusetts provided for the establishment of reading schools because it was “one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.” Deferring the issue of Puritan theology until later, the obvious point is that the colonial government decided then to pay for the business of educating children.

     Nothing of the same was decided for the colony’s other businesses—farming, husbandry, the retail trade, construction, or, most importantly, health care. Other than midwifery and prayer, there was little health care in early New England, but it must be underscored that the doctors were not taxpayer-supported then and would not enjoy such a privilege until the 1960’s with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

     But what if those early Puritan legislators had elected to earmark taxpayer’s funds for their citizens’ health care, and not for education?

     The teachers would work as the doctors do today. Students would have to schedule appointments with a teacher weeks in advance for a fifteen-minute office visit and a scrawled prescription to buy a book. Self-study would be the rule, but if a student demonstrated a skill or an aptitude, the doctor would order further testing and a stay in a dormitory.

     Students would pay for each office visit, and parents would pay for education insurance in case of a child’s catastrophic desire for more education. Nurses would oversee the student’s progress. The teachers would work hard all day—ten to fifteen hours or more—but then receive an excellent income.

     And the doctors would work as the teachers do now. All the sick would gather every morning in a hospital room where the doctor, with chalk and lesson plans, would teach about good health and then give out an assignment. After an hour, the sick would be shuffled off to the next room for an additional lecture and assignment. Doctors would dispense medicines freely in every classroom, and all would take the same prescription.

     The doctors would face constant discipline problems because the sick would not want to sit in a desk all day, but for all their efforts, the doctors’ would receive a far lower income than now but work less hours, perhaps, with weekends and summers off.

     Far-fetched these scenarios may be, something like them may have evolved if health care had been publicly-supported initially and education had been kept private.

     The question of the day is, “Should the government now expand its control of the health care business?” The question is a profound and polarizing one, and the wisest of the thinkers are struggling mightily for the correct answer. People’s futures, human talent, and achievement are all at risk, whichever direction they choose.