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June 8, 2008

What is Public Education?

Lisa Graham Keegan - an adviser to McCain's 2008 campaign:

One constant cry in the debate over educational reform is that we must save our public schools. But proponents of that argument assume that a public school system must be exactly what we have today: schools clustered in districts governed by centralized bureaucracies that oversee every detail of what goes on in individual schools, from budgets to personnel to curricula. That's like saying that our steel industry should center on open-hearth furnaces and giant corporations rather than the nimble mini-mills that have largely superseded them. Let's agree, for argument, that a public school system is a good thing: but why should it look just like it does today—which is what it looked like 50 years ago?

There's nothing sacrosanct, after all, about the current structure of our public education system. Its roots go back to the nineteenth century, when a geographical community would club together to hire and pay a teacher and later, when things got more complicated, would tax property to provide a local school and then appoint or elect a few people to a small board that would oversee it and hire its teacher. As the communities grew into towns and cities, it seemed logical to expand the governing mechanisms already in place. Tiny school boards slowly swelled into today's bloated and dysfunctional school districts, responsible for running not one but 5 or 25 or 50 schools.

If we want to save the public schools, we mustn't confuse the ideal of public education—that every child has the right to a good K-12 education at public expense—with any particular system, including the one we've got. Surely we can come up with a modernized definition of public education fit for a new millennium. In Arizona, where I'm Superintendent of Public Instruction, that's just what we're trying to achieve. Our new approach, aimed at shifting power from bureaucrats to students and families, has three key, equally essential parts: student-centered funding, parental choice, and tough, objectively measurable, standards.

Start with student-centered funding. In Arizona, we've all but replaced an older and more typical system, in which school districts assess and use local property taxes to fund schools, with one in which the state raises the money (including for capital construction) through a statewide tax, straps an equal amount of it to each student's back, and releases it only when he walks into the school of his choice.

Today's district is a rigid command-and-control system that offers dissatisfied parents no choices except, if they don't like the district school, to send their kids to private school or to home-school them. Moreover, like the Soviet Union with its five-year plans, the districts do a poor job of management, for the reason F. A. Hayek pointed out: command-and-control systems suffer from an information deficit. How can a distant district office bureaucrat know how to run a school better than the principals and teachers who work there? Too often, the district just lays down a single set of policies to govern all its schools, imposing one-size-fits-all curricula and disciplinary policies on schools that may have very different needs. The system also seems impervious to reform from within. In my experience, those who join district boards, even those who start out reform-minded, eerily become co-opted and wind up defending the system tooth and nail. It's just like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

If you need an additional reason to abolish the traditional property-tax funding system, consider this: it's unfair. Funding education through local property taxes is deeply regressive. It lets rich districts spend more per pupil, at much lower tax rates, than poor districts. After all, a rich district's citizens who pay $3,000 per year on their $300,000 houses are paying 10 percent in taxes; the poor district's citizens who pay $1,200 on their $100,000 houses are paying 12 percent.

The Green Bay School District, currently run by incoming Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad spent $11,441 per student ($232,232,000 total budget) in 2006/2007 while Madison spent $12,422 per student ($329,596,000 total budget) during the same period according to School Facts 2007 by WISTAX.

A few other interesting comparisons between the Districts (2006/2007):

Equity Fund BalanceEnrollmentLow IncomeStaff% Revenues from Property Taxes
Green Bay$21,900,000 (9.3%)19,86344.9%2445.631.8%
Madison$18,437,000 (6%)24,90844.1%3544.667.9%
Related: On education, McCain & Obama may not be far apart.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at June 8, 2008 5:33 AM
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