Freedom of Choice

My "grammar school," as they called them then, had three classrooms and an auditorium with a stage.  Three teachers, including the principal, taught grades one through eight in those three classrooms.  There would be a lesson for the first grade, with second and third graders also in the room, then a second grade lesson, with first and third graders listening in, and so on.  Each room had a pot-bellied stove, and we didn't get indoor plumbing until I was in the sixth grade.

I didn't know to feel deprived except that my mother, who had graduated from high school and had taken a few college courses and taught school some before I started, kept talking about sending me to a better school about 20 miles away.  I, of course, wouldn't hear of it.  She did, however, send me to the larger school five miles away when I was in the eighth grade rather than waiting another year for high school there.

I don't know what kind of arrangements had to be made, if any, to get permission for me to catch the high school bus. I don't recall it being a big deal.  What was a big deal that year was that I was the only new kid in the eighth grade, and it would be another year before my grammar school buddies would join me in high school. 

My new class had a room and a teacher of its own. I suppose I learned more there than I would have in my old school.  What stands out in my memory of that year, however, is a fight with school bully and my embarrassment at taking too long to cut some kindling to start the fire in the stove.  It was the first time I'd had the honor of being asked, but, because I didn't live on a farm like many of my classmates, I had no experience in that particular endeavor. I can still feel the humiliation coming back into the room late and short on wood.

Four years later, in 1960, I graduated third in a class of 33, behind Sheridan Thompson and Winnie Jenkins, and I didn't think it was fair that boys had to compete with girls for grades.  As I recall, only three people in my class went on to college.  Not going to college was never an option for me, not because of my Mother, but because of my Dad.

My Dad dropped out of school after the seventh grade to work in the sawmill. He also hauled timber out of the North Georgia mountains, and, at one point, hauled oranges up from Florida.  Some time in my pre-school years he rented an old building across the road from our tiny house and opened a "filling station." At about the time I started to school, he built a truck stop on the top of the hill about a quarter mile up the road.  His idea was that trucks would naturally slow down as they climbed the hill and would be more likely to stop. 

His marketing campaign was two hand-made signs out front: "Free Coffee to Truckers" and "3 Cent Discount to Truckers," i.e. three cents per gallon of gas (gasoline) or diesel fuel.  He left it up to the truckers whether to show the discount on the receipt or not.  I pretty much grew up at that truck stop from the first grade to college, working the night shift full-time during my last two high-school summers.  Later, I would say I was raised by long-haired waitresses.

Doyal's Truck Stop was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week-the 24/7 abbreviation wasn't around then as I recall.  The day was divided into two 12-hour shifts, the day shift and the night shift.  When the night man who pumped gas didn't show up, my Dad would have to work the night shift in between his two day shifts-dozing was inevitable, but sustained sleep was not possible.  

My Dad's lack of education showed up in several ways:  he had a check writing machine so he wouldn't have to write out the amount of the checks in script.  His writing was pretty much limited to numbers and his signature.  He had no accounting or control system to speak of; so he pretty much had to be present to keep employee theft down.  On those few occasions when my mother talked him into going to Sunday school with us, he would have to practice reading the assigned Bible verses in case he was called on.  My Dad was not dumb; he was smart, actually.  But he lacked "book learning."

What I'm leading up to here is that my Dad had to work very, very hard to make a living, and, because of that and for as long as I can remember, his mantra was "Bobby, you've got to go to college so you won't have to work as hard as me."  There simply were no ifs, ands or buts about it.  He viewed education in very practical terms.  It was the way out of poverty and manual labor.  A "good education" was the only road to an easier and better life.

These early lessons in the value of education didn't come hard to me.  They made sense to me when I was five years old, and they kept making sense. They were intuitive.  How could you argue with the obvious? I grew up assuming that everybody with eyes could see how the world works, and that, as soon they could afford it, they would insist on their kids graduating from high school. By affording it, I mean as soon as they could do so without the extra hands on the farm.

I apologize to the readers, if any, for getting stuck in the fifties.  I've had Georgia on my mind lately because of the current issue of high school dropouts in Texas and how school choice might help fix the problem.  I couldn't help thinking of my Mother's modest and partially successful effort to exercising choice on my behalf.  But, just to complete the story . . .

I graduated from high school in 1960, from the University of Georgia in 1963.  I won a National Defense Education Act fellowship (thanks to Sputnik) and went on to graduate school.  I later got a Ph.D. in Economics and became an economist at the Richmond Fed.  I had a 36-year career at the Fed, including the 1991-2004 period as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.  I served the next two years as Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, before coming to my current job with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

When I was President of the Dallas Fed, we had several educational programs for high school students and teachers, and I became aware of the excellence of Texas' best.  I thought I had been a pretty good student in high school, but my experience paled in comparison to most of the Texas students I met who were finalists in our essay contests and Fed Challenge competitions.  I knew I was just meeting the "cream of the crop" of Texas students, but it wasn't until I became Chancellor that I realized how far down the other end of the spectrum reached.  Most public Texas universities are accepting high school graduates that require considerable remedial work before they are able to work at the college level. Our high schools are turning out some of the best graduates in the world and some of the worst in terms of achievement.

I still didn't realize how bad the situation was until I recently saw a study on Texas high school dropouts sponsored by the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation. It estimates the average high school graduation rate in Texas at approximately 67 percent, with much lower rates in the major urban school districts. While the main victims of this appalling statistic are the dropouts themselves, they also impose large extra costs on Texas taxpayers. Counting just three categories of costs– reduced tax revenue, higher Medicaid costs, and higher incarceration costs–Texas taxpayers spend more each year on dropouts than they spend on them while they are still in school. The study goes on to estimate the substantial savings to taxpayers by reducing the dropout rate through only a modest program of school choice.  You can download the study, The High Cost of Failing to Reform Public Education in Texas, at www.friedmanfoundation.org/txfiscal.pdf.

Comments (3)

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  1. Kent J. Lyon says:

    As a believer in educational choice, I would advocate an immediate change in public education financing, by immediately allowing all public high school students to attend their school of choice, with the averaaage amount spent per pupil in the state following them to their school of choice. In my admittedly poorly informed perspective, the GI bill is the best evidence to date of the value of educational choice. Providing a similar opportunity to all students in primary and secondary education would likely have similar very beneficial results. From the study cited by Dr. McTeer, such a program would likely have a massive and beneficial economic impact on the state. The American public education system is one of our greatest liabilities, and one of our greatest failures, with few exceptions. It generates a great waste of human potential. We are not likely to long survive as a nation or a civilization with such profound disregard for our children as evidenced by out public education systems

  2. From the prespective of a public school teacher it is imperative opinions are not formed based assumptions one shoe fits all feet. Coming from a large rural poverty county where traditionaly families income came from farming and textile factories gives a different view on schools of choice. Now that free trade has resulted in industeries relocating to foreign nations, and farming becoming a nonprofit entitiy, this area has become poverty stricken with a little money to support education. When we speak of transporting students fifty miles one way to a school of choice the validity is challenged. First, what parent wants their child spending three hours on a school bus each day. Simple math tells us a total of fifteen hours per week is lost. Yes – wasted. Maybe taken from family time, getting outside and experiencing childhood, making lasting lifetime memories, playing sports, and what about parents who work and would like to support their children by school functions or parent conferences? What happens to the child who is left by the bus? Parents are at work – so – they just remain at home. Where will funding come from to support this movement? What about the cost of buses, drivers, fuel, and providing quality facilities with sufficent technology and highly qualified teachers? One government stimulus package does not provide adequate funding for rural schools. I take offense at implying American public education is one of the greatest failures. A majority of America’s leaders are products of public education. It is through those gates we became a great nation. Many people passing judgements are using “testing results” as a measure of success or failure. Unbiased true equality results when those who are in control actually come into the trenches: I challenge anyone who is brave enough to accept it to engage your human body daily in a public education setting. Become a citizen of the real world. Reading documents, formulating opinions based on researched and survey numbers isolated from reality is unacceptable for mandating education patterns. Children are not to be treated like minature adults with education run by bussinesses or modeled by success results in military situations. Humans, children of all ages, will provide passage to the future for America – please treat them as people rather than numbers. Has this great nation lost sight of what we are about? Diversity in various talents is not always validated by numbers. Some super intelligent top students become college drop-outs while average results in success. Human potential is not wasted by public education – rather it is through us children become well rounded citizens void of egocentricity forming opinions.

  3. Tuhin says:

    Hey KC, You are going above and beyond taikng on this challenge. I sent an email request for help to 110 rett families tonight. Burning the midnight oil .Stay safe, get your rest, and may God Be With You! Here is my prayer to God tonight, Dear Lord, like the footsteps, can you take over for KC’s legs every once in a while a give him a break from all that peddling. Please let KC’s message be heard by people that are willing and able to help him achieve his goal. And, please keep him safe, and his spirits high. Amen