Choice of Toppings Only

Any additional educational freedom for Rhode Island’s parents would be a good thing, but Julia Steiny’s Sunday column on interdistrict school choice left me wondering about the mechanics of the thing:

Cross-district choice would allow the parents to decide which schools should be closed for lack of enrollment and interest, and which should thrive. Right now, because of Rhode Island’s demographics, student enrollment is dropping, leaving most schools with room to take in students from other districts. The money would follow the student, meaning that the federal, state and local funds that pay for the student’s education, the “per-pupil expenditure,” would be paid directly to the school the child attends. …
Hopefully cross-district choice is an idea whose time has come for Rhode Island. Offering public school choice would focus attention on the kids and their education by shifting just a bit of power to the families and away from the district bureaucracies. It would motivate districts, at long last, to work together and to work smarter to provide attractive educational options for all families. As such, it would work well in the current situation of serious fiscal distress.

The Heritage Foundation credits public school choice with improvements among Massachusetts’s students, but especially within the smaller field of Rhode Island, I wonder how the whole thing is supposed to work. A successful school district — Barrington, say — has extra room, so it accepts applicants from around the state, who bring with them the bulk of the money that would have gone to their home districts. Those districts panic and begin doing all those things that everybody knows ought to be done to improve our school systems in an effort to bring students back.
What if they don’t do so — or don’t do so quickly enough? Barrington can only take so many of the state’s kids, and the bite mightn’t be sharp enough to break entrenched interests and habits elsewhere. Perhaps Barrington would find a new school worth the investment, but that’s an awful lot of capital to tie up in a building and infrastructure as a business venture servicing the citizens of other municipalities. If the General Assembly would take its thumb off of charter schools, then the town could charter some of those. Families’ home districts could do the same, in order to offer choices that keep the money within their boundaries.
The unanswered question, though, is why local (or even state) governments are presumed to be the ideal managers of education. According to Heritage data, Rhode Island has the highest private school to public school enrollment ratio in New England, suggesting that leaders of the public system don’t engender confidence in constituents:

Rhode Island 16.4%
Massachusetts 14.3%
Vermont 13.1%
Connecticut 12.5%
New Hampshire 11.9%
Maine 9.2%

In that sense, Rhode Islanders are already proven supporters of school choice — so much so that they’re willing to reduce discretionary income and forsake other types of economic activity in order to procure it.
If we want real incentive toward improvement among our public school teachers and administrators, we should open up the choice campaign to private schools. Unless districts were to shape up immediately — and create or reinstate programs that parents want (such as gifted-talented) — they’d have to permanently retool their budgets to accommodate the 14.1% of all students for whose educations they are theoretically paid, but who don’t actually use the services. That strikes me as the more moral approach, anyway.
Note this interesting paragraph from Heritage’s Massachusetts summary (linked above):

According to an analysis by the Beacon Hill Institute, the state’s $1 billion infusion of funding for its public schools has not improved student test scores. State reforms such as raising teacher salaries and reducing class size have likewise failed to boost student achievement. The report recommended vouchers as a more effective investment of funds to improve academic performance.

In fact, the Beacon Hill report (PDF) goes farther than that:

… it turns out that the surge in test scores may have had little to do with the increases in state education spending that have been carried out in the name of Education Reform. Specifically:
• Spending more on instruction, whether by raising teachers’ salaries or by hiring additional teachers, worsens school performance.
• Spending more on management (principals) improves the performance of those schools that have a history of doing well on standardized tests (“high-performing schools,” in the language of this report). Spending more for any other purpose (raising teachers’ salaries, spending more for non-instructional purposes, adding teachers in order to reduce class size) generally worsens the performance of those schools.
• Socioeconomic factors and prior performance on standardized tests, along with various “intangible” factors, are far more important than increased spending as determinants of performance.

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Tom W
Tom W
16 years ago

Experience tells us that monopolies and oligopolies inevitably become focused on being responsive to, and satisfying internal constituencies not customers or end users. Thus prices continue to rise even as quality continues to drop.
This is the prevailing dynamic today in “public education.” We have a constituency of education bureaucrats (“educrats”) and a constituency of teachers unions, and the emphasis of the system is now goes to constituencies engaged in self-aggrandizement and mutual aggrandizement. Students, parents and taxpayers are left with the consequences.
While cross district choice might render some improvements at the margin; and the same with charter schools; real change in the form of truly increased quality at fair prices will not come unless and until there is an external competition from “private” alternatives. In turn, this competition must reach a critical mass such that it materially impacts the existing oligopoly (which is why the current selection of private schools has little impact). This critical mass can only come in the form of universal vouchers, of meaningful monetary value, whereby the parents of students can select among “public” and “private” schools, so that both will have to compete for students and their “voucher dollars.”

16 years ago

I had always heard that teacher pay had no direct positive correlation with student performance. Now we find that increased teacher pay actually worsens student performance? Wow. You just can’t make this stuff up. I keep waiting to find that silver lining when it comes to public education, you know something to feel proud of, yet I always feel we’re taking two more steps backwards.

16 years ago

Justin, As a comparison to RI, Hawaii private school population 18% is one of the highest in the nation second only to Delaware and Washington, DC both at 19% Some Hawaii private high schools offer International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, a rigorous curriculum and some middle private schools offer the International Baccalaureate Middle Years curriculum program. There are excellent gifted/talented-type programs and students can even take courses for college credit. Source Hawaii Star Bulletin newspaper: The above is not intended to degrade Hawaii public school system. Hawaii has the third smallest enrollment in the country after Wyoming and Alaska. But Hawaii has only one school district covering 1,600 miles of islands. Hawaii’s student to NEA teacher ratio is slightly lower than average at 19.5 students per teacher. Possibly because of a low student-teacher ratio, possibly because of spending an average of $8,000 per student, possibly because of high parent school involvement, possibly for other reasons, Hawaii boasts one of the highest graduation rates. The state’s Department of Education reports that 96% of the state’s seniors graduated in 2006. Only 480 of Hawaii’s Class of 2006 (with over 11,000 students) did not complete twelfth grade. Hawaii also boasts higher-than-average ACT scores. In 2006, Hawaii’s 2200 students who took the ACT scored an average of 21.9 out of 36, where the national average is 21.1. Hawaii’s best performance was on the Math portion of the ACT, where scores were almost two points higher than the national average. However, only 17.4% of Hawaii’s graduates took the ACT test, where the national average is over 34%. In 2010 new public school graduation standards are being implemented with an advanced curriculum program for students leading to an optional new high school “College and Career Ready Diploma” diploma. Hawaii 2007-2008 public K-12 enrollment is 178,369 in… Read more »

16 years ago

Justin, your addendum is so important, it should have been a separate post.
Money does not equal a good education system. And we have unfortunately proven it here in Rhode Island.

16 years ago

… a separate post which is re-posted once a week.

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