Lessons from a Soviet MIG Pilot about Public Education
On September 6, 1976, a fighter pilot from the Soviet Union named Viktor Belenko flew a MIG-25 fighter jet to Japan and defected. At the time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were fully engaged in the Cold War. The MIG-25 was a super top-secret aircraft about which the Pentagon knew only enough to be frightened. Consequently, the MIG-25 impacted the development of the F-15 Eagle. Thus, Belenko’s defection had major implications for America’s national defense, allowing a better look into the true capabilities of the Soviet Air Force.
But Viktor Belenko’s story is much richer than the fact of his defection. Belenko had some telling experiences, described in his biography, MIG Pilot. He related how, while he was stationed at a remote military base, his superiors were told that a dignitary high in the Communist Party was to visit. In response, large trees were transplanted to line the road between the air strip and the base’s living quarters and offices in order to make the base more attractive. The trees died because it was the wrong time of year for transplanting. More trees were transplanted. They died. So, it was decided that the trees would be quickly spray-painted green when the dignitary was on his way. The dignitary never showed.
This was only one of several examples Belenko witnessed of how his socialist nation horribly misallocated – wasted – resources. His military base housing, a large masonry apartment building, was wrapped with steel straps and his apartment was richly appointed with a steel I-beam running through it, all retrofitted to keep the building from collapsing. He related how, when he worked in a factory, a particularly talented worker fulfilled his quota before noon and then would drink himself into a stupor for the rest of the day in order to keep from breaking the quota, which would have invited the ire of coworkers since their quotas would increase.
Belenko was also smart in seeing through the cloud of Soviet propaganda. When films of American slums were shown and claims were made that they represented typical life in the U.S., Belenko noticed TV antennas on the buildings and cars in the streets. He wondered who owned the TVs that went with the antennas and who owned all the cars, having never seen so many antennas and cars in the Soviet Union.
So what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with anything related to the work of a state-based think tank? Well, it’s simple, really. In most states, the first or second single biggest state-funded appropriation is public education. Since the definition of socialism is “government ownership and control of resources,” public education is, in fact, socialistic. And, where there is socialism, there is misallocation – waste of a not-always-obvious sort. Belenko saw through the propaganda and what seemed like normal everyday life to recognize the waste that he saw all around him in the socialist Soviet Union that others did not see. We need to do the same, right here, right now, when it comes to our socialist public education system.
Take education funding in Oklahoma. We financially reward school districts for identifying students as eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Consequently, over 60 percent of kids in our public schools are so identified for funding purposes, implying that Oklahoma is quite poor. But, fewer than half of Oklahoma’s children are in households with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Since the lunch program allows participation only for kids up to 185 percent of poverty, far fewer than 50 percent of Oklahoma’s school kids should represent extra funding. Clearly, there is fraud, and school districts getting the extra money have no incentive to root it out. WASTE
We also reward districts for identifying children as bilingual. Twelve percent of Oklahoma’s student population is identified as bilingual, the vast majority of whom are undoubtedly Hispanic. But that implies two-thirds of our Hispanic children are bilingual. Is it reasonable to believe this? WASTE
Experts generally agree that between 3 and 10 percent of a student population can reasonably be considered gifted in some way. Over 12 percent of Oklahoma’s school population is classified as gifted under a statutory definition that is ridiculously broad. There is every incentive for school districts to over-identify children as gifted, and Tulsa has answered the call. That district claims 50 percent more gifted students than Oklahoma City. WASTE
The state funding formula’s weights for pre-kindergarten, first, and second grades are at least as high or higher than the high school weights. Private schools reserve their highest tuitions for high school, which means we are over-funding education for little kids. For that matter, this is one of a handful of states that provides universal pre-K, and like them, we’ve not seen any positive results from spending all that money on free daycare. WASTE
(See this for a fuller discussion of school funding formula issues.)
I could go on about the number of non-teachers in the system being as great as the number of teachers, teachers leaving not because of pay, but because central offices stress irrelevant testing and evaluations, and teachers not having access to working copying facilities. Then, there is the gross spending on new facilities while personnel, maintenance, and other immediate needs go unmet. WASTE
The solution is not another study. It’s not re-doing the funding formula (though needed). It’s not teaching teachers to be polite because kids have had Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). It’s not technology. It’s not piles more money. And it’s not radically changing curricula (though that might help).
When states first started building roads in a big way, they did it socialistically, by having a state agency buy the equipment and hire the men to use it. The result was corruption and other waste. The solution was to contract construction and heavy maintenance to private firms.
The solution is to move education away from socialism. It can still be publicly funded, but we should contract with education practitioners (teachers) to independently do what they know how to do with parents choosing which teachers they want, reward the good teachers and cancel contracts with the bad ones. It’s a radical change from what we have, but it’s a change that’s badly needed, if only legislators and voters would see through the fog that the education establishment blows in our faces and see the promise that a Viktor Belenko might see.