School Choice and Scarcity Don’t Mix

/ 31 January 2014 / eunice

Steve Fletcher, Minnesota 2020, January 31, 2014 – So, we’ve come to the end, according to a Center of the American Experiment press release, of “school choice week.” To mark the occasion, CAE put on a breakfast co-hosted by the African American Leadership Forum, The Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter, The Minnesota Business Partnership, The Minnesota Catholic Conference, The Minnesota Independent School Forum, The Minority Liberty Alliance, and StudentsFirst MN. The press release promoting the event quotes Kathy Saltzman, the State Director of Students First, equating school choice with “policies that put Minnesota’s students first.” This seems like as good a time as any to remind ourselves that the real world isn’t that simple.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you have three public school classrooms, each with 24 students. Let’s say three of the students in each classroom decide with their parents that they’d be better served by other choices like charter schools, schools in other districts, or colleges through the PSEO program. (Disclaimer: I’m a PSEO success story who got two free years of college during high school). Let’s say that they’re right, and those nine kids are going to thrive in their schools of choice (Note: choice is not working out that well in real life, but for the hypothetical, let’s pretend the alternatives live up to the hype). Making sure those kids have choices is “putting students first.” Right?

Yes! And no. School funding in Minnesota follows the student, so when those nine kids walk out the door, their per-capita funding walks with them. For the purposes of illustration, let’s round that number down to $10,000 each. So nine kids leaving the school represents $90,000 – about the cost of one of those classroom teachers, when you factor in salary, benefits, related administrative supports, etc. In our hypothetical, that means one teacher would be laid off and the kids who are left have to be combined into two classrooms, one with 31 kids and one with 32 kids. Research shows that small class sizes close the achievement gap and produce better overall outcomes, advocating for policies that keep resources in public school classrooms to keep class sizes small would be “putting students first.” Right?

Yes!  Of course, school budgeting isn’t that simple, and schools do everything they can to cut other expenses before they cut classroom teachers. So first, they’ll cut specialists who teach things like music, art, and physical education. They’ll cut counselors, nurses, support staff, paper for the copy machine, and anything else they can think of to avoid making those cuts. Cutting the K-6 music specialist means hundreds of kids – not just the 63 in that grade – no longer get music so that those nine kids could have a choice. Advocating for hundreds of kids to get access to music education sounds like “putting kids first.” Right?

Here’s the thing: I want it all. I want the bright kid who wants to try college early to be able to do that. I want the kid who’s feeling alienated to be able to choose a school that proactively celebrates his culture as part of the curriculum. I want the kid who struggles in a classroom but loves building things to get access to career training that sets her up for career success. AND I want the kids who choose a public school education to get the attention, variety, and quality that will close the opportunity gap and set Minnesota up to thrive.

By debating these issues without mentioning financial resources, we end up pitted against each other, instead of against the anti-tax interests who are undermining quality education. “School choice” becomes a battle between the people who care most about the nine hypothetical kids who choose a non-traditional school and the people who care most about the 63 hypothetical kids left in under-funded classrooms. Of course, some will say that the answer is to expand choice to draw MORE students out of those overcrowded classrooms.  We’ve seen the extremes of that in Chicago and Philadelphia, where dozens of public schools have been closed as alternatives are added at astonishing rates. Unfortunately, expanding school choice as quickly as we have has resulted in a huge number of charter schools that underperform district schools, producing bad outcomes for the kids who choose them and creating chaos in district budget and enrollment planning.  Until we address resource scarcity, school choice appears to harm more kids than it helps.

One approach to that problem is to limit choice to protect funding for the majority of kids who go to public schools. The better approach is to provide adequate funding to fully support traditional public schools AND a rich range of specialized educational options.  If school choice was additive and the money didn’t follow each kid out the door, options like charters and PSEO could take pressure off of struggling schools instead of exacerbating challenges. I invite Center of the American Experiment and their breakfast co-hosts to join me in coalition to advocate for an historic investment in public education that would fully fund public schools AND a healthy range of high quality alternatives to provide an excellent education for all Minnesota children. Surely, that’s the outcome the architects of “school choice week” have in mind. Right?