First a brief bit on why I think responsibility is important. As tirinian pointed out, I phrased the question at one extreme. Really, there is a spectrum from wanting people to get all the benefits and/or consequences from their decisions and wanting them to get none of the benefits and/or consequences from their decisions. I fall towards the end where people get to realize most of the benefits of good decisions but have less safety net. I think having to live with the consequences of your actions is the best way to promote better decision making, and I think the world could do with a lot of better decision making. I think many of my friends have a somewhat sunnier outlook on human nature than I do and seem to assume that people will do the right thing even if there are few consequences for doing the wrong thing. While it may be true for our tiny little peer group, I'm pretty sure it is not for society at large. In fact, I'm pretty sure that one of the main reasons why communism failed is because workers all earned the same no matter how well they worked, and that lead to people doing lousy jobs all over. I'm all for a society in general where people have an incentive to make better decisions and do a better job. Also, we do have a robust insurance systems for mitigating some common forms of risk, for example buying life insurance so your kids don't become destitute if you are hit by a bus, so I think there is less room for worrying about catastrophic bad luck than some people might think.
So, you might wonder what it was about the school discussion that got me worked up. Well, with two small kids, thinking about future schooling is a big deal for me right now. I think a big part of it was a difference in point of view between myself and others who were commenting. I have kids, and a substantial number of my friends do not. I was approaching the discussion as a parent, and I think my childless friends would approach the discussion from the point of view of either the children or teachers. I think we also have had different experiences with schools. The result is a major disjoint in how we see the subject of school reform.
After quite a bit of trying I am now the parent of two little children. Some day I am going to send them to school, probably. If life were a roleplaying game and you managed to steal my character sheet and read it, you would discover that at this point my primary game goal is to insure that my children grow up happy and healthy and go one to be good and successful adults who will hopefully produce a number of grandchildren. I assume that most (but not all) parents also have this goal at least on their radar screen. My own parents encouraged me by reading to me from a young age, and I watched a lot of Sesame Street as a preschooler. I arrived at school with basic numeracy skills and a very firm knowledge of the alphabet. Our school district was OK. It wasn't great, but it was in the suburbs at least. Certainly I was terribly bored for most of my schooling. I've had some contact with folks from the pre-MIT era via Facebook, and I'm sure they can attest to the reading under your desk because you were that bored, not needing to pay attention for more than the first five minutes of math, blah blah blah. Honestly, it wasn't terrible and there were a few AP classes, but thank goodness I learned a whole bunch of stuff on my own. I'd say I arrived at MIT at a disadvantage to those who had college educated parents and came from better schools, but it was not insurmountable. Still, I'd say I learned maybe 20% of what I arrived at MIT knowing in school, the rest was from my parents or just doing stuff on my own. When it comes to my own kids, I am assuming that I will have to teach them the basic literacy and numeracy skills before they get to school. We've already started with Margaret. I assume that even a good public school will at best offer them a flawed approach to the basics, and I am going to have do a lot of enrichment on my own. If nothing changes I'm not even sure I want to send my kids to public school; basically I see it as free babysitting with a side of education unless things change.
I would like for public schools to be better. I would also like to win the lottery, and hey while we're talking pie-in-the-sky options a spontaneous pregnancy would be nice a little over a year from now. Under the current system I think that throwing more money at the public schools is not the answer. Given politics and special interests and teachers unions (I'm very anti-union, ask me why if you care), I think that adding more money to the current system will at best only result in marginal improvements. People do note that richer school districts have students who tend to score higher on standardized tests, but I think that's largely due to having better educated parents, not that the schools necessarily do a substantially better job of educating the kids. So, given that I think the current system can't be fixed just by money, other ideas like charter schools and voucher systems are very appealing to me. I'd love to shop around for the best school I can find for my kids. It might even be that the best school for Margaret is not the best school for Duncan. If I could get better schools by shopping around, maybe when my kids get to college they'll have learned 40% of what they know in school. Wouldn't that be cool. Also, if we had a different system in place where good schools were rewarded there may be more good schools and things would be better for everyone.
Of course the objection that gets raised by people are against school vouchers is that if we go to vouchers then those poor kids whose parents don't give a damn will be the only ones who are stuck in the bad schools, schools that will be even worse because they will have less money. Well, that is a potential problem, and ideally a voucher system would have some point at which a school would have to be declared to go out of business if it looses a certain percentage of it's kids in order for such a system to work. I'd like to think that enough parents care about their kids that such a system would work reasonably well and no one would get stuck in the worst schools for long. Even when you bring this up closing schools that loose too much business they still oppose vouchers; I guess they think there are enough bad parents out there that the bad schools wouldn't lose enough pupils to get closed down. Basically as a parent I hear this argument as, "Because there are bad parents out there the kids of good parents have to be dragged down to their level." Actually, a lot of talk about education sounds that way to me. 'Oh, these kids are doing poorly, we need to spend the money we have on them instead of on the kids who are doing well.' (I'm tempted to draw some parallel here about how silly it would be to take your money out of a company that was performing well and invest it in one that made an inferior product, but perhaps that would be useless in a time when the government owns a huge share of two car companies that seem to have a problem making cars that people want to buy.) I would like the think that the people who are against vouchers and such are just so worried about the welfare of those poor students with disinterested parents that they just don't realize what they are saying to those of us who do give a damn about our kids' education.
I do understand about being concerned about the children of the irresponsible parents. After all, it's not their fault. The thing is, the world is not a fair place. I understand that if you're the poor child of a single parent who doesn't look out for you and your school is sub-par life is going to be tough for you. The thing is, that describes the situation that both of my parents grew up in, so it is not a bar to success in life, and while it might mean that the disadvantages kid doesn't go to college, if they work hard they can send their own kids to college, maybe even a really good one. Everyone in this country does have access to opportunity. It's not a level playing field, but everyone does have some access to education, no matter what. I think trying to make the world a little bit fairer is a good goal, but trying to force the world to be fair is not. For example, a free education for everyone through grade 12 is a good thing. If you said that you shouldn't do that because the rich kids would live in better school districts, that would be a bad thing. If you said that we should only educate the kids who have uneducated parents because the educated parents will teach their own kids and be at an advantage, that would not be productive. I think that vouchers would actually help most poor families. I think they would help most families in general, and it's irritating to get as the argument against them the fact that we need to protect the irresponsible from the consequences of their irresponsibility.
What kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a country where we just assume that people can't do fourth grade math and figure out that they can't afford a certain mortgage? Personally I'd prefer a society where people read the fine print before signing something; if more people had there wouldn't have been so many brokers getting rich on bad mortgages. I'd like to live in a society where parents consider it their duty to make sure their kids are getting an education. I'd like a society where people who work hard get to keep more of their money, and I'd like one where people are encouraged to behave prudently because prudent behaviour will go a whole lot farther than government regulation when it comes to keeping things running well.