Tuesday, May 12, 2015
The Moral Case for Abolishing School Districts
What follows is my May 11, 2015 column in The Orlando Sentinel.
Another school year is being wrapped up for the more than 2.6 million kids in Florida's 4,200 public schools. Some of those students will be in my classes next fall. When they arrive, many will discover that they have left a public-school system that failed miserably to prepare them for a challenging college curriculum. Most of my students come from America's K-12 public-education system. A few attended private or home-school settings; some are mostly educated in foreign nations.
The vast majority of students who fail my class, or withdraw during the semester for failing grades, are American public-school students. My best students — every year, with no exception — are foreign-educated or private/home-schooled Americans.
While many obvious answers come to mind — parenting, net family wealth and cultural views of education — there is something else that should not be overlooked. That is the fact that many of my top students never had to deal with educational monopolies.
In much of the rest of the world, parents are allowed to use their tax dollars to shop for the best public school for their child. In Belgium, for example, public schools must compete with one another for every student. There are no districts, and no one is forced to attend a school based on geographic proximity to the nearest educational facility.
This means that kids in Belgium are guaranteed that competition will produce better teachers, more educational innovation, a greater variety of school options and a brighter future.
Not in America.
Rich parents have school choice. They can send their kids to great private schools, hire tutors and more. Middle-class parents like my wife and I use home-schooling, along with private instructors. Many of our friends with even lower incomes do the same.
Poor families do not have these choices. They are forced, unless they are lucky enough to get into a charter school or specialized magnet program, to attend the school in their district.
What if they also faced grocery-shopping districts? Imagine being told by government that you could buy food only at the grocer closest to your house. If the grocer knew it was illegal for people in a certain area to shop elsewhere, you would see higher prices, reduced choices and diminished quality.
The same exists in public education. Kids who live in poor areas have no idea, until they go to college, that they were systematically segregated based on economic status. They know that racial segregation of schools ended in the 1950s. Now economic segregation, largely along racial lines, has prevailed.
What if we were to abolish all school districts and give poor people choices that other people have? Critics would charge that the good schools would become overcrowded and the failing schools would close. No and yes.
The good schools would do what every business facing an increase in demand does: expand. Under this model, the state's resources, along with bond issues, could be allocated to the high-demand schools. The struggling schools would face the Darwinian proposition of adapting or dying. If bad schools were to die, the result would be the same as when a bad restaurant goes away. Bankruptcy sends out important information on how not to run an organization.
Yet, as long as we use government force to discriminate against people based on their bank accounts and ZIP codes, I will continue to have students who, on the first day of class, have no idea how far behind they are — all while sitting next to other students who enjoyed educational liberty that every child deserves.