Recently the Wall Street Journal told the tale of former Indian milk deliveryman D.T. Walkar who faithfully comes each day to the Worli Dairy to NOT deliver milk:
Most days, he and his fellow drivers at the government dairy sign in, then move to the rest area. While others read the paper, nap or play rummy, Mr. Walkar likes to do the Sudoku puzzle in the Maharashtra Times, unless someone else has gotten to it first. He then wanders around the complex and talks to friends. The last delivery trucks were sold last year. “The trucks are all gone so we just sit around and talk,” says Mr. Walkar, 50 years old. “We are bored.”
Have Indians stopped drinking milk? Hardly, it is still a key ingredient in Indian cooking and in religious rituals. So what happened? The Wall Street Journal explains:
In 2001, the Indian government started opening the dairy market in Maharashtra to competition. Private carriers with higher quality milk swiftly won customers by delivering milk to doorsteps. The government milkmen have always been restricted to delivering mostly to curbside milk stalls so they could cover a greater area.
At the same time government workers are protected from layoffs– Walkar is reluctant to move to the private sector because he claims he needs the government housing his job provides and so Walker sits every day with nothing to do until he can retire in about 8 years.
As I read this essay—poignant in its description of human energy being wasted—I began to think of American “milkmen.” The first group that came to mind was public school administrators.
No, I am not claiming that public school administrators “read the paper, nap or play rummy.” No doubt though, most schools would be better off if that is all that they did—after all, ask many public school teachers and they will tell you that any effective teaching that they accomplish in their classrooms is frequently done despite the interference of administrators.
Former New York State teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto has been a harsh critic of public schools. He tells a tale about complaining about waste while he was still a teacher:
An assistant principal once said to me, “It’s not your money. What are you getting excited about?”
What if I told you that he was the second best school administrator I met in thirty years? He was. That’s the standard we’ve established. The waste in schools is staggering. People are hired and titles created for jobs nobody needs. There’s waste in services, waste in precious time spent moving herds of children back and forth through corridors at the sound of a horn. In my experience, poor schools waste much more than rich schools, and rich schools waste more than you could believe.
The only public aspect of these places is that they function as a jobs project, although large numbers of these jobs are set aside as political patronage. Public schools can’t understand how the average private school can make profit on a per-seat cost less than half the “free” public charge; they can’t understand how the average religious school makes do on even less.
The answer is of course that their administrative costs are a fraction of the administrative costs in public schools. Not only that, but also they are free to innovate without the stifling rigidity that only layers of bureaucracy can provide.
Back to India—in monopoly conditions, it made perfect sense to milk industry bureaucrats that milk be delivered only to centrally located, unrefrigerated, broken-down stalls and not to homes; and it made perfect sense that the quality of their product could not be improved.
Once we reflect on Indian milkmen, we can understand why the public school lobbyists fight so hard against any form of school choice for parents. Simply put, once parents have a choice, many of the choices that school administrators and politicians have made will not stand. These are just a few of the conditions that can only exist under the near-monopoly that public schools enjoy:
- Funding a large, bloated bureaucracy.
- Using quick fixes for disruptive behavior, like helping to place almost five million school children on Ritalin—which some researchers say has a more potent effect on the brain than cocaine.
- Operating many urban schools without providing a basic, safe environment for learning.
- Designing curricula that leave many high school graduates unable to handle college level work and unable to compete for employment opportunities that exist in a post manufacturing society.
- Designing curricula that leave may high school graduates ignorant of the basic principles of political and economic liberty.
Even the veteran insider, the late and former American Federation of Teachers President, Al Shanker has observed:
It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.
One day, American consumers of schools, like the “liberated” consumers of milk in India, will have a choice. No doubt, we will be told that the redundant school administrators have to be kept on the payroll anyway. And just like the Indian milkmen, most will choose to put in their time until retirement. When that day comes, at least we can be thankful that, like the Indian milkmen, they will be no longer serving up a sub-standard product.