There’s No Such Thing as a “Public” School

 

shutterstock_356921591Perhaps the most pervasive myth about our nation’s education system is the notion that “public schools have to take all children.” Last year, when criticizing charter schools that she claimed, “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” Hillary Clinton quipped, “And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody.” In fact, they do not. At best, so-called “public” schools have to take all children in a particular geographic area, although they can (and do) expel children based on their behavior. They are more appropriately termed “district schools” because they serve residents of a particular district, not the public at large. Privately owned shopping malls are more “public” than district schools.

This wouldn’t be a serious problem if every district school offered a quality education but, in fact, they do not. Rather, the quality of education that the district schools provide tends to be highly correlated with the income levels of the residents of those districts. As Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation and I noted last year, our housing-based system of allocating education leads to severe inequities:

There is a strong correlation between these housing prices and school performance. In nearly all D.C. neighborhoods where the median three-bedroom home costs $460,000 or less, the percentage of students at the zoned public school scoring proficient or advanced in reading was less than 45 percent. Children from families that could only afford homes under $300,000 are almost entirely assigned to the worst-performing schools in the District, in which math and reading proficiency rates are in the teens.

Not surprisingly, some parents feel desperate when their kids are trapped in subpar schools because they can’t afford to live in ritzy neighborhoods or pay private school tuition. And some of those desperate parents will provide fake addresses to get their children a better education.

In Florida, the Broward County School Board announced last week that it is hiring private investigators to spy on the addresses the school suspects of being fake. As the Sun-Sentinel reports, the private eyes will “monitor a home and then give school officials photographs, videos, and a detailed report.”

Fraudulent registration has long been an issue. Parents, believing their child will get a better education at a school outside their assigned boundary, list a relative or friend’s address, provide a fake address or even rent an empty apartment in the area of a preferred school.

Doing so can in Broward be prosecuted as a third-degree felony, since parents declare their addresses under penalty of perjury.

It’s unlikely that the district will have the funds to hire private eyes to track every student. One wonders, then, what criteria the district schools will use to determine which students should be surveilled… will they start with students who, shall we say, don’t look like most of the other students in that high-income district?

Broward County is far from unique. Parents nationwide are regularly fined and even imprisoned for stealing a better education for their children. One New Jersey town even offered $100 bounties for information leading to the expulsion of students whose parents lied about their addresses.

Writing at RedefinED, Nia Nuñez-Brady explained why her parents provided a fake address to get her into a better – and safer – district school:

One day, while I was using the ladies room, another girl, who was double my size or at least it felt that way at the time, threatened to bash my head on the wall if I didn’t stop hanging out with a guy she liked. Growing up, my dad always told me, “Your face is too pretty to get into a fight.” So, I said to her: “Please don’t hit me. I’ll stay out of your way.”

She laughed. I went back to class, and tried to focus.

The next day, while walking on the hallway at the school, this same girl grabbed another student close to me. She pushed her against the wall and instigated a fight. The difference between myself and this new student: This girl fought back. The bully wasted no time. She grabbed her Snapple bottle, broke it on the wall, and used a piece of glass to slash the student’s face.

I was petrified. That could have been me.

Nia begged her parents to change schools but they couldn’t afford it. They were recent immigrants with little money. But they couldn’t bear to keep their daughter in a school where they feared for her safety. So they lied.

[M]y parents did something thousands of other public-school parents feel forced to do, because they feel they have no other options. They lied about where we lived so I could go to a different school where I would feel safe.

Of course, it is understandable residents of districts who have paid taxes into the system would be upset that they are subsidizing the education of children whose parents haven’t paid into the system. And so it’s also understandable that the district schools would seek to exclude students whose parents haven’t paid into the system, just as private schools shouldn’t be expected to educate a child whose parents hadn’t paid tuition. As Nia explains, problem is the system itself:

I understand that perjury is against the law, and that the law should be respected. But from my own experience, I know the parents who lie about their address are often the ones with limited resources, the ones who cannot afford to move to a more affluent neighborhood, the ones who can least afford to pay a fine or fight a felony charge.

I can also understand the families who have been kicked out of a school close to where they live, because the school is overcrowded with students from other neighborhoods. That, too, is unfair.

But that’s the problem. The system is unfair.

Indeed. Getting a decent education should not depend upon the ability of one’s parents to afford an expensive home. It is long past time that we break the link between home prices and school quality. Doing so entails recognizing that there’s no such thing as a “public” school.

[A version of this blog post was originally published at Cato-at-Liberty.]

There are 21 comments.

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  1. Nick Stuart Member
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    The public school system is irredeemably broken. No amount of tinkering around the edges will reform it.

    The only solution is voucherize it and let parents control where their children go to school. Like Barack Obama, his former henchman Rahm Emmanuel, most of our political and business elites, and a host of public school teachers do.

    • #1
  2. mezzrow Member
    mezzrow
    @mezzrow

    Having taught (in a previous life) at one of those schools that is accepting the good students that want to get rid of their dysfunctional school, you have to understand the dynamics.

    In general, the students and parents are escaping a large urban school district for a smaller rural or suburban district.  They are moving to a well-run system from one based on the lowest common denominator of performance, from the students as well as the staff.

    In my experience, every time one of these motivated students walks into my school, they bring money (every student in a school is cash on the hoof for its Principal) and in most cases, they make that school better, and the one they left worse off.

    This is all driven by human nature.  Those who take personal responsibility to rescue their children from schoolmates headed to prison instead of college will look for their best solution.  The better run districts used to let these kids in with a wink and a nod if necessary, but I’ve been out of the loop for a long time now.  I suspect this is just the kind of rescue that our current administration is dedicated to strangling in the crib, if it can.  That’s a big part of the regionalization push that Obama is so fond of.  There will be no escape from the dysfunction.

    • #2
  3. James Madison Member
    James Madison
    @JamesMadison

    We have modified school choice based upon space available with consideration of academic interest at the high school level (3 high schools with slightly different emphasis: international, arts, STEM).  Initial assignments are based upon residence and free lunch eligibility (a defacto race or ethnicity test to manage diversity).

    By rebalancing faculty between the schools, we smooth out differences in the quality of the teaching resource – something that can get out of whack.

    Academic performance differences tend to reflect the free school lunch profile with more free lunches correlated to lower academic school by school performance averages on standardized tests.  Sorry, but it is fact.  We have no required bussing and our neighborhoods though economically seperated, are somewhat better distributed.

    So better management practices and union free (fewer rrestrictions on teacher reassignment), makes for a more democratic, uniform educational experience.  But economic class still demarcates a gap in outcomes, be it a home environment, interest, or ability difference driver.

    And when you hit high school, the performers academically self-select a different track by taking honors and AP classes – starting at 9th grade.  This has become the latest point of contention with minority parents claiming such classes disadvantage their children….why or how?  These courses are by choice and the district pays for any special standardized testing – costs that might dissuade.  The claim is minority children are not encouraged and given remedial help to take and succeed in such courses.

    • #3
  4. Pony Convertible Member
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    Your column barely scratches the surface of the problems with government schools.  I am for eliminating all of them.  Give the parents “school stamps” (call them vouchers if you want), and let them use them like food stamps to shop for education wherever they want.

    With food stamps, everyone, regardless of race or income level, has the same access to quality food, with multiple choices of where to buy.  It could be the same with education.

    • #4
  5. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    There are not enough schools to take vouchers.

    Better to convert all public schools to charters – and allow for competing charters in the same districts (possibly even in the same buildings). The money follows the students, and the charters will aggressively tailor the education to attract the students and parents.

    • #5
  6. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    There are any number of complicating factors that prevent solving the problem of failed public schools. Teachers unions have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and so invest huge sums of campaign contributions to Democratic candidates and office holders who promise to divert more tax dollars to benefit union members. Democratic candidates seek votes by promising parents that, if elected, their children’s schools will be improved. Well-meaning young teachers are being trained in colleges and universities by professors who reflect the dominant academic culture of marxist and socialist dogma. Which is the root cause of the miserable state of the modern public school?

    I list these here only to suggest that addressing these problems will take a generational effort, The advocacy we make today for vouchers (yes!) and wider access to charter schools (yes!) and breaking the cycle of political advocacy by the teachers’ unions (yes!) will take decades of committed effort to affect results, because it will require change at the college and university levels.

    • #6
  7. Freeven Member
    Freeven
    @Freeven

    I recall wincing when I first read Hillary’s observation that public schools have to take all kids while charters do not. Apparently, she’s unaware that charter schools are public (i.e. government-run) schools. She also seems unaware that most charter schools operate via lottery, and many specifically target low-end students. It’s simply not the case that they don’t serve poor and academically struggling kids.

    • #7
  8. Jim Beck Member
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Morning Jason,

    There is no national (and I know of no local) conservative writer, pundit, politician who has made the improving choice or quality of specifically inner city schools their number one mission.  This shame is on us as conservatives, we are the ones who pride ourselves in a educated populace.  In 2007, Michelle Rhee took over DC schools and produced substantial improvement in the quality of teaching.  The KIPP schools for about as long has also produced improvement in schools in inner city areas.  Katrina destroyed the New Orleans school system allowing the state to place competing charters to take over the larger part of the school system.  The results were noticeable improvement in student results. We have seen improvements with different strategies and yet the improvement of inner city schools has not become a major plank in conservative political movements.  This is part of our current tragedy. Conservative think tanks could even fund their own free schools or the like for inner city students; I am sure many folks would contribute to such schools.

    • #8
  9. Pony Convertible Member
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    iWe:There are not enough schools to take vouchers.

    Better to convert all public schools to charters – and allow for competing charters in the same districts (possibly even in the same buildings). The money follows the students, and the charters will aggressively tailor the education to attract the students and parents.

    There would be plenty of schools to accept vouchers if every parent was using them.

    • #9
  10. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Absolutely fantastic post and article.

    Well done, well said, and well thought out.

    It is a crime what we are doing to some children in the name of education.

    • #10
  11. zepplinmike Member
    zepplinmike
    @zepplinmike

    iWe:There are not enough schools to take vouchers.

    Better to convert all public schools to charters – and allow for competing charters in the same districts (possibly even in the same buildings). The money follows the students, and the charters will aggressively tailor the education to attract the students and parents.

    I like this idea far more than the vouchers one. Vouchers for private schools would just turn private schools into public schools. In what universe would we expect the government to dump a large amount of money into something and not want a say in how it operates. It would start out like how the federal government uses its grant money as a weapon to control local policies on things like school lunches and transgendered bathrooms. It would eventually add up to such regulation and control as to make those private schools with vouchers essentially government-run and we’re back where we started. Better to keep private schools private.

    • #11
  12. Jason Bedrick Member
    Jason Bedrick
    @JasonBedrick

    iWe: There are not enough schools to take vouchers.

    Well no, not yet. But that’s because the government school system has crowded them out. It’s hard to compete with “free.” If people had vouchers (or tax-credit scholarships or education savings accounts), there would be much more demand for private options, and the supply would expand to meet demand.

    • #12
  13. Jason Bedrick Member
    Jason Bedrick
    @JasonBedrick

    Pony Convertible: Your column barely scratches the surface of the problems with government schools.

    Well it is but one column. I’ve got more!

    • #13
  14. Jason Bedrick Member
    Jason Bedrick
    @JasonBedrick

    iWe: Better to convert all public schools to charters – and allow for competing charters in the same districts (possibly even in the same buildings). The money follows the students, and the charters will aggressively tailor the education to attract the students and parents.

    Charters are certainly an improvement over the status quo, but they are still bogged down by regulations and they have to be secular. Vouchers (or, better yet, education savings accounts) foster a system that is more innovative and diverse.

    • #14
  15. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    mezzrow: That’s a big part of the regionalization push that Obama is so fond of.

    I have observed that Obama’s every instinct is to consolidate and centralize, in every aspect of life, but I have not heard this term used.  Is it one that’s used by Obama?

    • #15
  16. Robert Dammers Thatcher
    Robert Dammers
    @RobertDammers

    You want your education system to be like Sweden’s – entirely voucher based.  It is a common fallacy on the left that Sweden is a socialist paradise.  It’s far more complex than that – Sweden combines high levels of tax and income redistribution with higher levels of economic freedom than the US.  The reaction of Sweden’s government when Saab went bust was “so what”, not a bailout like the parent GM.  Similarly, there is no union stranglehold on education.

    • #16
  17. Robert Dammers Thatcher
    Robert Dammers
    @RobertDammers

    My cousin’s daughter (*) is studying film in the UK, paid for by the Swedish government – she can spend her education voucher here.  You can debate how much of this should be state funded, but the principle is at least consistently applied.

    (*) I know that’s cousin-once-removed, but that’s too pedantic, even for me.

    • #17
  18. Nick Stuart Member
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    zepplinmike: Vouchers for private schools would just turn private schools into public schools. In what universe would we expect the government to dump a large amount of money into something and not want a say in how it operates.

    Even if it were impossible to prevent this from happening (which probably it is) a voucher would give the parents the option to pull their kid out of a school where they weren’t being taught how to read or do arithmetic; or who were being terrorized by out of control badly behaving kids.

    The sheer fact that each school would have to compete at some level for students would force them to up their game.

    • #18
  19. Pony Convertible Member
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    zepplinmike:

    Vouchers for private schools would just turn private schools into public schools. In what universe would we expect the government to dump a large amount of money into something and not want a say in how it operates. … Better to keep private schools private.

    You are correct about this.  Indiana is a voucher state.  Most, if not all, private schools now accept State vouchers.  The State is going straight for the cash flow jugular.   The State takes months to pay the vouchers.  6 months is common. I have heard stories of it taking a year.  Private schools need the cash to pay teachers and other expenses.  Many have folded, which seems to be the plan.

    • #19
  20. Chris Johnson Member
    Chris Johnson
    @user_83937

    Here’s something the private sector notices and reacts to.  There are investment groups that target the purchase of real estate in the neighborhoods of high schools that perform above average on standardized tests, for the simple reason that the property values in those neighborhoods consistently rise.  This strategy has become so successful for investors, (such as pension funds), that it results in a steady demand for more acquisitions in those neighborhoods.

    In my immediate area, of the 89 school districts in Florida, only two perform more poorly than ours on standardized tests, and one of those is the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind.  Needless to say, the investment groups avoid my area.

    In my area one, single public High School has an A rating and the supply of parents that want to acquire real estate in that vicinity exceeds demand.  That school is in the heart of the city.  The homes in that vicinity were mostly built before 1980 and don’t typically suit the tastes of young families.  Apart from the ritziest mansions and lake-front properties, the prices are modest.

    You can spend far more on homes in the suburban areas and get large, brand new homes there.  But they don’t hold their value as well and certainly don’t increase in value at the consistent rate of those around the best school.  The residents that care about the school their kids attend are the good neighbors that elevate property values.

    • #20
  21. Jason Bedrick Member
    Jason Bedrick
    @JasonBedrick

    Pony Convertible:

    zepplinmike:

    Vouchers for private schools would just turn private schools into public schools. In what universe would we expect the government to dump a large amount of money into something and not want a say in how it operates. … Better to keep private schools private.

    You are correct about this. Indiana is a voucher state. Most, if not all, private schools now accept State vouchers. The State is going straight for the cash flow jugular. The State takes months to pay the vouchers. 6 months is common. I have heard stories of it taking a year. Private schools need the cash to pay teachers and other expenses. Many have folded, which seems to be the plan.

    This is a legitimate (if overstated) concern. Tax-credit scholarship programs are superior to vouchers in that they rely on private funds and therefore tend to have a very light regulatory touch.

    Education savings accounts (ESAs) are another promising option. They allow parents to completely customize their child’s education by using the accounts to pay for tutoring, textbooks, online courses, homeschool curricula, etc. in addition to (or instead of) private school tuition. Although the existing ESAs are publicly funded, the regulatory burden has been very light because many of the common regulations on voucher programs (tuition caps, admissions requirements, testing, etc.) are impractical or unfeasible with ESAs. Moreover, since the state deposits the money into the accounts quarterly, the private schools and other education vendors don’t have to wait 6 months to get paid.

    If you click the last link in the blog post, you can read more about ESAs.

    • #21

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