Kevin D. Williamson on ‘More Spending for Less Output’ in Public Education

Kevin D. Williamson joins Andy Nash for the second episode of Inside Academia. Mr. Williamson is a deputy managing editor at National Review, author of its Exchequer blog on debts and deficits, a theater critic for The New Criterion, an adjunct professor at The King’s College in New York City, and author of the just-released book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism.

Key Take-Aways

  • 2:21 — System doesn’t work, horribly ineffective, expensive, unaccountable (1min)
  • 3:35 — The public system fails the underprivileged (:30)
  • 4:55 — Wealthier school districts can get away with more waste (1 min)
  • 7:43 — Spending more per pupil, but getting worse results (:30)
  • 9:34 — A Model of Education (1 min)
  • 11:40 — “The problem w/ higher ed is not so much socialism as it is corruption.” (2 min)

Andy’s Show Notes

“The problem with higher education is not so much socialism as it is corruption.” That was Kevin Williamson’s response when asked about colleges and universities doing all they can to limit costs of educating undergraduates, while simultaneously raising tuition and receiving greater public funding.

In his new book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism,” Williamson devotes a chapter to American primary and secondary public education.  In it, he highlights how the costs of education are driven up by everything from teacher and administrative salaries, non-instructional costs that range from generous benefits to faculty pensions, and smaller classes that require more instructors and facilities.  Teachers’ unions have successfully touted the virtues of smaller class sizes and lobbied for requirements that faculty earn advanced degrees (with corresponding salary increases), all in the name of providing better education.

Although these outcomes obviously enrich the unions and membership, Williamson cites studies that show no appreciable benefit or increased performance by students (given the costs). For example, no real increase to the quality of instruction in a class of 40 as opposed to 20, nor due to the degree held by the teacher.  Although he concedes some affluent public schools perform better than others, there still remains no competition, and no incentive to succeed for fear of failure.

“More spending for less output–that’s a good definition of socialist economic outcomes.”

In ironic contrast to primary and secondary ed, higher education has largely behaved in the opposite manner, particularly at taxpayer-supported public institutions.  With the focus shifting to research in most major universities, class sizes have grown and more non-professors, adjuncts, teachers’ assistants and grad students have been utilized to teach undergrads–none of which has necessarily increased the quality of education either.

Williamson clarified the difference of a state-owned operation (socialist) versus a state-supported operation (more akin to that of a welfare state).  He questions the need for state-run education at any level, and argues that in universities where there is very little competition and a lot of collusion, they offer very little service at a very high rate.  He concludes that by making the BA the main credentialing mechanism universities have in effect created a hostage situation if you want to (supposedly) have any kind of decent middle class life.  He therefore calls it “an ugly system.”

All of this, while true and important to address, fails to even scratch the surface of deeper and equally relevant considerations – that students’ relationships to their alma maters, and their very development as enlightened human beings, can and should be pursued beyond a simple consumer/supplier paradigm.  Unfortunately, systemic failure at this basic level obstructs our view of the bigger picture.