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.


  1. It's interesting reading this blog post because 5 years ago I was one of those public school children that entered your class. To valid your point I wasn't prepared and failed your classes, but the following semester I came back and barely made it out of there with a C.
    It's not that your class was hard or complicated but simply I wasn't prepared at all for it. I was expecting multiple choice questions on quizzes and 5 paragraph essays to write not the real world critical thinking that was needed.

    That experience was my wakeup call because I graduated in the top of my class with an honor's diploma and a 4.7 GPA. According to my high school teachers college would be easy for me, but it took me 5 years to earn a 2 year college degree because I kept failing classes.

    The public school I attended was an F school at the time and although my father wanted to send me and my brother's elsewhere, we couldn't because we were "zoned" for that specific school. My AP American History class didn't even have enough text books for all the student's and we were asked to buy our own or share with another student. In my honor's English class we watched movies and took quizzes on what we saw in the movie, no critical thinking involved.
    I didn't realize that the public school system not only failed me but my entire graduating class of 2008 until I walked in Professor Chambless class and he showed my class how public schools around the world compared to us. It was shocking that countries that are considered 3rd world are receiving better education than myself.
    It was a slapped in my face how far back America's public school education is compared to other countries.
    After that lesson I made a promise to myself to do everything I can to ensure my children are either homeschooled or sent to an international private school.

    So thank you Professor Chambless because currently I have 2 little ones, and both are being homeschooled. My 4 year old has the vocabulary of a 7 year old and my 2 year old son is writing, speaking and doing a little bit of math. If I never sat in your class I would have continued to believe the lie that "the public school will educate my child, so trust them". Instead I took matters into my own hands because the feeling of utter confusion and helplessness I felt when I couldn't pass my college classes because I wasn't prepared for it, is not something I want my children to experience.

    Casthra Demosthene
    (Macro-Economic spring 2009 & fall 2009)

    1. Thank you for this response! Congratulations on being one of those parents willing to do the right thing by your children. They will thank you for it!

  2. I am pretty surprised that a trained economist indicts the Florida school system based on such a small, biased, and skewed sample. His conclusions are based on a subset of a) students that attend Valencia and b) students that took his econ course. With all due respect, while Valencia may be the "holy grail" for well-to-do foreign students and the home school crowd, I doubt that it registers on the radar of the higher performing public school students. I can't help but wonder if the results and conclusions would have been different if he included Florida students attending the more selective colleges and universities!!

  3. A small sample? 24 years and 16,000 students is not a small sample. Skewed? Look at the results in other colleges around America. Home-schooled kids have among the highest GPA's and graduation rates in America. More foreign students receive advanced degrees in math and science than Americans do. Answer the question, Rick. Should parents have freedom or be locked into a school district?

  4. If studies show a vast difference in educational achievement between homeschooling and our public school system, imagine what a competitive school system could do! Allowing parents to be able to choose a school for their child inevitably raises the bar for all schooling. It becomes market transactions and the best product(s) will come on top. Not only will education not stay stagnant as it has been for several decades, it will constantly adapt to the times, raise the bar, and allow for furthering the educational achievement of future generations.