Sunday, September 02, 2007

D.C. Education Policy - Six Of One and Half A Dozen Of The Other

Today the Washington Post presents two self-interested voices to speak about the problems of the D.C. public school system, the new Superintendent, Michelle Rhee, and the chairman of the board for a charter school, Mark Lerner.

Ms. Rhee speaks positively of the school district's ability to overcome some pretty standard obstacles, such as hiring new teachers, dealing with unexpected staffing shortages, fixing up school buildings, and improved textbook delivery. She describes problems with student registration, and the need for significant improvement in the current system. The editorial closes with the suggestion that although "the first week of school was the best yet ... there is much more work to do, and we have many more changes to come."
Student success is our highest priority, and with the support of parents, guardians, teachers and principals, our schools will be among the best.
If you were to judge this editorial by its omissions, I would note that the crumbling school infrastructure (a significant problem in most large cities) and corruption aren't mentioned. I don't mean to be unfair to D.C. by suggesting that it has problems of corruption in its school administration, but I doubt that there is a major urban school district without significant problems of fraud, corruption and waste. There's also no mention of student safety issues, an unfortunate but necessary issue that must be tackled by any school district which encompasses "inner city" schools.

Mr. Lerner does not expect the D.C. schools to overcome their bureaucratic problems and "dilapidated school buildings". Instead, of course, he lauds charter schools:
Charter schools, fighting for their lives to find facilities in the costly D.C. commercial real estate market, do not operate in buildings where the bathrooms are falling apart and water fountains do not work. You do not find paint peeling from walls and air conditioners that do not cool. And these schools are safe.
Obviously a new charter school is not going to seek out space in a crumbling building. A charter school has the benefit of being able to set its own maximum enrollment, lease as much (or as little) space as it wants, expect its students to travel to its location, and abandon that space or even shut down completely at the end of its lease. Public schools have none of those luxuries.

If you wish to offer neighborhood schools, or something reasonably approximating them, you need to have specialized school buildings throughout the city, and although in theory you can talk about privatizing that process (calling upon third parties to build and own schools while leasing them to the school district) you can expect that to both substantially increase cost and create a risk that an owner will decide at the end of a lease to find a different use for the property - with no realistic options available for a school board that wants to move to different premises. If the tax base is insufficient to pay for upkeep, maintenance, and building obsolescence, you will inevitably see students in crumbling schools.

Even if you abandon the notion of neighborhood schools, you need money for new buildings, increase transportation costs, and create commute time for every school child. Even assuming new school buildings somehow build themselves, I doubt that there would be a cost savings over replacing neighborhood schools, and there may in fact be a cost increase.

Lerner argues that a profit motive leads charter schools to offer a better product,
The power of ownership provides strong incentives to invest time and money into these schools. The power of school choice results in strong incentives to provide a product better than the one down the street.
Which, of course, is why charter school students so consistently outperform public school students, right? Except they don't. (I recognize that Lerner's school is for the performing arts, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that he so capably dances around the facts.)
Instead of trying to fix the D.C. public school bureaucracy, we should turn all of these schools into institutions of choice. With all the money we allocate to educating kids in the city (through DCPS, charters and the Opportunity Scholarship Program), we could provide each student with a $12,000 scholarship to a private school. Or, for a lot less money then we are currently spending, we could convert every school to a charter.
This is doubly duplicitous. First, there isn't room for every D.C. school student in a private school. Second, although average spending per pupil may be $12,000, that does not mean that spending is equal for all students. If Lerner has any students with special needs - academic or physical - I am sure his school already gets additional support, resources, and perhaps even staff provided out of the public school budget. Private schools do not have to accept students with learning disorders or behavioral problems - two classes of student for whom per pupil funding is vastly above the $12,000 average. Public schools have to serve any kid who makes it through the door.
Yes, working day and night, Rhee and the mayor may have some limited success. Then they will move on, and their replacements will take their eye off the ball. And then the children of the nation's capital will be back to square one.
Here, unfortunately, he's probably correct. While I attribite it to self-interest, not naievete, that he pitches privatization and charter schools as the answer to all of D.C.'s problems, it is exceptionally unlikely that Ms. Rhee will be able to achieve the magnitude of reform necessary to truly transform the D.C. schools. I sincerely wish her luck.

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