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:
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.