Arnold Kling  

Public School Choice

The Free-Market Agenda... Kevin Drum's Turkish Bazaar...

Reihan Salam writes,

To understand why Mike Bloomberg's latest round of proposed school reforms is so bloody brilliant, read Lisa Snell on the weighted student formula. The New York Sun points out that WSF bears a faint resemblance to a voucher program, a fact that has vexed left-leaning activists in New York (shockingly enough). And yet WSF is a form of public school choice that unambiguously disempowers the rich and powerful (which is to say, in New York, the loud, obnoxious, and politically active) while strengthening the hand of poor parents.

The Snell piece says,

School closure is another prominent feature of the weighted student formula model. In Edmonton, if a school declines to the point that it can’t cover its expenses with the per student money, the principal is removed and the remaining teachers and facilities are assigned to a strong principal—or the school is closed altogether, and the staff is moved to other, more successful schools. The San Francisco school district closed five schools in 2005 because of under-enrollment and is considering closing or consolidating 19 other schools.

I think that a good indicator of how closely a weighted-student funding formula comes to approximating a real market is whether schools are indeed closed. It's not so much that you get rid of the worst schools. It's that the "prospect of hanging" focuses the mind of all of the school officials.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
mjh writes:

I agree with AK. Whether this is effective will be determined by whether or not there are any school closings. The issue with public schools is not just the effectiveness of the schools. It's the cost for that effectiveness. So two things need to happen:

  • The effectiveness needs to go up (which is what this program seems to be focused on), AND
  • The cost needs to come down (which necessarily means closing some schools)
  • I think it's an interesting program. I'd like to see the competition among the schools also include private schools. I'd like to see a mechanism for parents who wish to homeschool or send their children to private school, to not be forced to pay for schooling twice (once for the public schools through taxes, and once for the private/home schools through self funding). Until those things are incorporated, this seems like a partial solution to me. Still it sounds like a step in the right direction.

    John Thacker writes:

    Of course, San Francisco has also closed schools for other reasons-- the population of school-age children has also declined in the city itself. The price of housing (for a variety of reasons) prices most families with children out of the city.

    You have to take population changes into account. That said, I completely agree with the general point.

    Bruce G Charlton writes:

    But closing the worst schools is a good thing too - in fact it is the quickest way of making a definitie improvement in the average quality of the educational system.

    There is a precedent: 1910-1920 Abraham Flexner's report triggered the closure of about half of the US medical schools, making an instant and large improvement in the average quality of the remainder (who could easily grow to take up the demand) -

    Jim Glass writes:

    There's both more and less to this proposal than meets the eye.

    On the one hand, it is a much bigger funding reform than it is being presented as.

    Right now many poor-neighborhood NYC schools get half the real-money budgets that rich-neighborhood schools get, sometimes less.

    This is because the teachers union insisted on protecting seniority transfers to the best schools. But senior teachers get paid more -- so if if each school had the same real-dollar budget per student, the best-neighborhood schools would be forced to have fewer teachers per student than other schools.

    The union knew that the parents in the best-neighborhoods would have none of that, so they got in their contract a school spending formula that treats each teacher as "average" cost. This keeps the number of teachers per student equal in "good" and "bad" schools -- but gives the attractive schools a much bigger real-dollar budget for instruction than the poor-neighborhood schools get.

    So the good neighborhood schools who have the easiest students are loaded up with the most senior teachers from the top of the union ranks, while the bad neighborhood schools with the most challenging students are staffed with uncertified beginners, who quit at an amazing rate.

    (Of course the other schools unions quickly copied that, so now it's also true for support personnel and everyone else in the system.)

    Thus the current funding system -- which BTW is standard in unionized big urban school systems across the US -- outright screws the poor by giving their schools much less real money per student, and the lower-quality staff that goes with it.

    Then, of course, the schools unions go out and fight against vouchers and charter schools -- posing as the great defenders of the poor!

    Bloomy's funding reform would do much more than create competition for funds in the system -- it would equalize spending to benefit the poor ... but at the cost of teacher seniority rights.

    Good luck trying that! Especially since Bloomy just signed a new contract with the teachers union -- right before his election, coincidentally -- that made the union very happy by raising teachers' top pay to over $100,000(!) with zero reforms in it, zip, nada.

    Which gets us to the less than meets the eye part.

    There's also a column in today's Sun that is very skeptical of the politics of the whole proposal, noting that Bloomberg's had five years to do this stuff and has done none of it to date...

    With much fanfare four years ago, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled his plans to revamp the school system that he had been given control of six months earlier. Today, he is scrapping virtually all of those plans in what to me appears to be a "Hail Mary" pass to get back into a game that appears lost. If this were Iraq, call it a "surge."...

    Joel Klein ... is well into his fifth year as chancellor. The entire system has been changed to follow a model of his design ... The results have been less than impressive ... Eighth-grade reading scores are just one point above where they were in 1999 ...Education Week, which compiles graduation rates across the country, put the figure at only 43%...

    Mr. Bloomberg's shot at a legacy of fixing the schools is dwindling. If things were going well, yet another radical restructuring would not be necessary. So the scrapping of the Bloomberg/Klein plan unveiled just four years ago should be taken for what it is — an admission of failure.... [Andrew Wolf]

    It's nice to dream -- but as a long-time observer of the NYC schools, I wouldn't be counting on anything.

    Daniel Cowdrill writes:

    In the UK, we use the funding per pupil formula. This injects an element of competition between schools, but poor schools that should struggle to enrole sufficient numbers rarely close. The reason why is because there isn't enough spare capacity in good schools and there is little history of good schools expanding to take on more pupils. As a result poor schools gain enough pupils to remain open. The long and short is, good schools need to be encouraged to expand so that students who currently end up in poor schools actually have a choice.

    Eric Wilson writes:

    I would like to first comment on the issuse with the less performing schools or the bad schools. I don't feel that you need to just close them down, or do away with them. I feel that we need to perform a closer study as to why these schools are they way they are, and do the things possible to make them succesful schools. I think we need to brainstorm and come up with ways to add more money into our schools and school system. I think it is safe to say that funds are the biggest reason why some schools are more succesful than others. Those that have the funds to hire the best teachers, and get the computers, and all the up grade technologies. So maybe allowing each state of have a lottery than gives funds to the early education instutions and colleges as well would be benefical. We obvisiouly have to and need to have a higher standard on education, and do whatever we need to, to make all schools a place where a good education is awarded to all students.

    Brendan McCarron writes:

    Is the "threat of hanging" and not the actual closure an example of Baumol's "contestability"?

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