Monday, May 14, 2018

School Choice, IT and Wyoming's Future

Last Monday I outlined the basic idea behind a school-choice model here in Wyoming. The one new ingredient that I introduced compared to previous school-choice models is an emphasis on IT education all the way through K-12. 

Today, let us put some more meat on those bones. 

There are three important reasons to advance a school-choice model with an IT profile:

1. School choice is generally good for the economy. It has been shown that kids who go through K-12 under educational freedom are 25 percent more likely to start a business and become entrepreneurs, than kids with a background in a traditional public-monopoly system. If we incorporate state-of-the-art IT education standards as part of the proposed standards for a school-choice system, we are likely going to see a much higher rate of entrepreneurship coming out of the system. 
2. Private sector jobs in Wyoming pay poorly, with the average non-minerals job compensating just over $37,000 per year. Basic IT-skill jobs tend to pay better than that, which means that a boost in IT education across the state, already in K-12, would open a considerably better job market than we have today.
3. A well defined IT education standard makes it much easier for parents who does not want their kids to go through K-12, to tailor their children's education according to their preferences. With a strong suggested IT standard we will see alternatives to public schools that range from full-service private schools to homeschool networks with IT as a common denominator. In other words, more freedom, more education dynamics and a more promising future for our kids here in Wyoming.

Perhaps the most important component here is how beneficial an IT standard is to the economy. Before we get there, though, let me make anticipate a question that many supporters of educational freedom have, namely about educational standards. Would they be mandatory in a school-choice model?

My default answer is no. I have had experience with the Danish voucher-based education system where there were practically no standards; a kid could go to a school eligible for vouchers, excel and graduate high school without having achieved the academic minimum requirements for college. At the other end of the scale, there were high schools that were among the best in the world. It was, simply, up to the parents to take full responsibility for their children's education. 

If the Danes can have a voucher system without imposing standards on every school, so can we. That said, it is probably easier to get a good school-choice model working here in Wyoming if we associate the vouchers with suggested standards, not mandatory, but suggested, in math, science, English, American history, civics and - yes - IT. 

We just have to make sure that the IT standards are developed and continuously updated by representatives of the IT industry, not school bureaucrats. 

Now, about the economy... It goes without saying that in the future, more jobs than ever will require IT proficiency. There appears to be a general lack of appreciation of this in public school administrations across the country, and - as I mentioned last week - there is also some level of frustration with this in the IT industry. This gives us an opportunity to edge ahead of other states without any considerable tax-paid investment. 

This last point is important. Governor Mead's ENDOW initiative includes a workforce development component that is supposed to give our state's workforce the skills needed for new, higher-paying jobs. There are two problems with this particular part of ENDOW (in addition to other problems, such as WyoFlot): a) we already have a community college system that does a fine job with providing advanced vocational training programs; and b) it would add more weight on the shoulders of over-burdened taxpayers.

A school-choice system with strong, suggested IT standards will do everything ENDOW claims to do, and more, without adding a single dime to what we taxpayers already contribute. On the contrary, school choice done right will reduce the cost of K-12 education and let taxpayers keep more of their own money.

When this school-choice reform takes effect, our young workforce will gradually prove to be better prepared for the labor market than any of us were when we graduated high school. As an example of what this means in practice, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a relatively basic IT job can pay more than $39,000 per year, with the following defined set of skills:


With a good IT-based education in K-12, an 18-year-old can graduate high school and be at this level. Since $39,000 is more than what he or she could earn on an average non-minerals private sector job, there is a good chance that we will retain more of our young fellow Wyomingites here, and no longer export them to other states. 

And, again: since school choice significantly raises the likelihood that a kid will become entrepreneurial in his young years, a strong IT education will open enormous possibilities on that front. 

At this point, skeptics will raise a valid question: it is fine to educate our kids, but will businesses come looking for them? After all, we have heard so much about them needing daily commercial air service to New York and Singapore; are they really going to come here unless we also create WyoFlot?

No, not all of them. Apple, Facebook and Intel will not relocate their headquarters to Thermopolis just because kids graduating high school there have good IT skills. But we are not looking to attract big corporate headquarters from major corporations. They are, of course, welcome if they want to come here, but this is not a reform that will primarily attract that kind of investment. 

Instead, what we are looking for with an IT-driven school choice model are opportunities for:

a) our kids to be able to find well-paying jobs here in Wyoming straight out of high school;
b) entrepreneurially minded people to start new businesses; and
c) businesses large and small to bring operations here that do not require daily connections to the rest of the galaxy.

Too many of our politicians seem to think that Wyoming is too small for them. They seem to think that it is their duty to rebuild our state's economy from the top down, with lavish economic-development spending, big-scale deals with major corporate leaders from all over the world, and shiny jets crisscrossing our skies. That is how we end up with ideas like WyoFlot and the notion that unless we can get Toyota to build a major manufacturing plant in Greybull, we have not made forward progress as a state. 

All of this is nonsense, of course. For generations, Wyomingites have successfully made a living, minerals or not; it is only relatively recently that our ability to create our own future has been stifled by an overly burdensome government. 

That is where the problem is. We do not need politicians to tell us how to provide for ourselves - we need them to remove obstacles and give us back our freedom. We need them to let us continue to build our future from the ground up. 

School choice is one big step in that direction.

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