Monday, April 15, 2013

The Real Enemy of Education Reform

I'm a huge fan of student vouchers. The basic gist of it is that school funding gets attached to enrollment, not school districts or individual schools. So if a high school has 2000 students, then that high school gets operational funding for a defined per-pupil rate multiplied by 2000. Money follows the student, even if the parents choose to enroll their kid in a private school.

This increases competition amongst schools, brings to bear the innovative capacity of the private sector, and will ultimately help to cap the escalating costs of K-12 education in the US. Unfortunately, the enemies to voucherized public education are many. Political standard bearers for vouchers tend to focus on the teachers' unions, but they never mention the real enemy of vouchers: the upper middle class.

Because the upper middle class already have their own version of school choice: buying a home in a district that's zoned with an excellent public school system. A district with a good public school has elevated real estate prices. The end result is that the people who make good money cloister themselves into these upper middle class communities with good public schools and everybody else gets left to fend for themselves in districts with mediocre or bad public schools.

The paradox is that while money can buy a home districted with an excellent public school system, money can't buy a good public school system. According to the Census Bureau, DC Public Schools spent an eye popping 18,600 dollars per student while simultaneously having the lowest graduation rate among all the states (plus the District of Columbia). Think about what that implies. An average class size of 27 has half a million dollars in annual funding and only 16 will graduate high school.

The current system, where your address determines which school you go to, has shunted poor inner city families into wretched school systems while the upper middle class burrows itself in communities with great public schools that have a proven track record of getting kids into the best universities. Everybody else (excluding the rich, who send their kids to private school) languishes in mediocre public school systems where kids simply don't learn what they need to learn.

There are two takeaways from this. If we can't be bothered with any significant reform of schools, the most important of which is to restructure the way money gets distributed from state and local governments to school districts, then we should just slash the education budget and lower taxes accordingly or redirect that funding to other programs starved for revenue. Education is the biggest expense in every state and local government and the primary driver in tax revenue growth. But we've thrown money at the problem for years with nothing to show for it.

Democratic/liberal/progressive apologists for the nation's dropout factories will say that poor, ignorant minorities can't do well in school because it starts with the parents. I agree with them on that fact. But instead of keeping the status quo, we should take money out of the school system and put it to good use elsewhere. With current trends, to educate a child in the DC public school system (or NYC's, LA's, Chicago's) from kindergarten to 12th grade, if current rates stay constant (which they don't, they always grow with each passing budget), taxpayers will spend 240,000 dollars over the course of 13 years to give these kids slightly better than a coin flip's chance of graduating high school.

The thing is, the intransigence of the public teachers' unions could be easily overridden were it not for the fact that the upper middle class also protects the status quo with ferocious tenacity. Go to any local rezoning meeting open to the public and you can witness firsthand how adamant these parents are about keeping their houses within a good school district. If you ask them to decouple school attendance from residential addresses, the values of their homes would drop precipitously.

The upper middle class already has what they want: A good, clean, safe community that keeps the riff raff out via high property values and high property taxes with good public schools for their children. They have absolutely no incentive to change the system. Meanwhile, the rest of America is allowed to rot just so their kids can have a significantly better chance of getting into a 1st tier public university or an elite private university.

Their apathy (and, at times, active resistance) is what enables the teachers unions to keep their lock at the local ballot box. Because the vast majority of funding for public education comes at the state and local level, reform has to be done at the state and local level. And it's a street brawl that has to be won block by block. For the local politician who just wants to climb the ladder without getting a target put on their back, that makes it impossible to defy entrenched interests in the state legislature or the local school board lest their political careers get nipped in the bud.

The unions are the obvious roadblock, but it's the upper middle class that is the real problem to meaningful education reform.


  1. Alternative roundabout solution: build more housing stock in desirable areas with good public schools.

    1. There are so many obstacles to doing this, not to mention potential unintended consequences, that it's pretty much not going to happen and it's not worth pursuing.