Why should any student have to settle for an awful school?

Joel Klein, outgoing superintendent of New York’s public schools, writes in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal Opinion about the challenges and successes of education in a piece called Joel Klein: What I Learned at the Education Barricades.

I enjoyed this piece and highly recommend it.  One part I found outstanding, some parts I found interesting and unsurprisingly, there was some I disagreed with.  But, overall, I think Klein is getting very close to the right track.

First, here’s what I thought was outstanding.  Klein asks:

…why should any student have to settle for a neighborhood school if it’s awful?

I appreciate it when someone can boil down a long, emotional, difficult and complex debate to one simple question.  Why should any student have to settle for a neighborhood school if it’s awful?

I’m looking forward to using that in future discussions on education.  I think the reflexive response will be something like, if the other choices are worse, then it doesn’t matter.   To which a good response may be, I’d rather give the parents more power to make that decision rather than less.

Klein, then goes on to write:

The debate shouldn’t be about whether a school is a traditional or charter public school. It should be about whether it’s high-performing, period.

Okay.  Now, here’s where Klein starts to lose me.  These two sentences sound very good, no doubt.  Who would argue with those?

I agree that debating whether a school is high-performing is better than letting it continue to rot.  But, the problem I see here is that there are numerous ways to measure performance.  Many in the education field disagree on which is best.  I happen to think only one measure is valid and very few people agree with me.

The only valid measure of performance is how many parents would choose to enroll their kids in the school if they had full control over the decision.

I offer this revision to Klein’s statement:

The debate shouldn’t be about whether a school is a traditional or charter public school. It should be about whether parents are choosing to send their kids there and why or why not.

Klein ends with this:

To prevail, the public and, most importantly, parents must insist on a single standard: Every school has to be one to which we’d send our own kids. We are not remotely close to that today.

I disagree.

I’ll give Klein credit for being far better on this than most.  He almost has it. He has the correct accountable party: parents.

But, I think Klein misses on the desire to have every school be one we’d send our own kids to.

To me, that’s like saying every restaurant must be one I’d choose to eat at myself or every pair of shoes must be shoes I’d wear. With restaurants and shoes it’s easy to see that we have a wide range of preferences and needs and that’s okay. That’s evidenced by the abundance of shoe companies and styles.

It wouldn’t make any sense to issue Klein’s single standard on these or any other good or service that comes in a wide range of choices.

But, it is easy to imagine what would happen if we did.  It would be impossible to come up with a restaurant or shoes that would suit everyone.  We’d join political factions to make sure that the restaurants and shoes we preferred were available by pushing our agendas on everyone else and fights would break out.

Sound familiar?  It should.  That’s exactly what we have with public education now.  We’ve unnecessarily pushed education into the political arena and that’s caused most of the problems.

Do you want to fund education through taxes to ensure everyone has access?  Great.  But, why do we need government to run schools?  Why do we not want to give parents of school age children more power to choose where they send their kids to school?

I recommend the following revision to Klein’s standard:

Every school should be primarily accountable to one group: the parents who decide to send their kids to that school.

At most, our local education departments should function similarly to our local health departments.  They should help make sure the schools are safe, clean and have effective procedures in place for emergencies and keeping track of children.  Though, I could be convinced that service could be provided privately as well.

Really, we shouldn’t have to debate whether a school is high performing or not.  The parents should decide.  When a school doesn’t perform well enough, the parents will leave it and it will close.

We have to reset our expectations for education.  We have to trust parents to make the right choices for their kids.  Most will do a good job and markets will emerge to help parents with that just as markets have emerged to help us make better choices elsewhere as consumers.

We won’t always agree with the choices other parents make.  But, that’s okay.  We don’t always agree with the shoes they wear or how they live their lives, but we typically butt out and leave them to make those decisions on their own just as we expect them to butt out of our personal affairs.

5 thoughts on “Why should any student have to settle for an awful school?

  1. Politicos promises delivered through centralized government planning schemes produce inferior results. Government centralized planning schemes, in an attempt to deliver a good or services as “universal”, find a the major problem arises in that universal coverage and universal access are not one in the same. Governments then concentrate on universal coverage knowing well that universal access is too costly. Hence universal coverage ends in a quantitative and qualitative reduction in universal access.

    The problem becomes worse in that the same politicos that produce the promise of “universal” then see bureaucrats and personnel of the government centralized planning scheme as “political constituency”. That the government centralized planning scheme is perpetuated and becomes larger and larger as politicos view the scheme as producing the phenomena of “political constituency building”.

  2. What I really liked in the piece was this comment:

    “Changing the system wasn’t easy. The people with the loudest and best-funded voices are committed to maintaining a status quo that protects their needs even if it doesn’t work for children. They want to keep their jobs by preserving a guaranteed customer base (a fixed number of students), regardless of performance.”

    Without explicitly calling it out by name, it recognizes what I feel is the most significant problem in making any important change in this country (be it to education, health care, entitlement reform, or even a college football playoff system) – the pursuit of “economic rents”. i.e. – people who are profiting from a situation will go to great lengths to continue to do so.

    In any of these situations, before we can discuss changes that will improve the situation we have to discuss how to get any change made. In the case of education it’s how do we get buy-in not just from parents and students, but also from the teachers unions and vendors who would have so much to lose? That is why I’m so interested in the wholesale changes going on in KCMO and I hope they have the political willpower to see them through in the long term.

    • I agree. Folks love their rents.

      Regarding getting the special interests to buy in, that’s why I like Klein’s question so much. It would be difficult for a special interest to answer that without making their conflict of interest apparent.

  3. Pingback: Unholy Coalition « Our Dinner Table


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