The Problems of Local Governments -- In One Not So Easy Lesson

Wed, 19 Jan 2011 01:00:50 +0000

I am back in the classroom this term, teaching a public policy course on the challenges facing local governments.  Across the country, no other issue compares to providing public education.  This story from last week's Washington Post about the likely changes to school assignments in the Wake County, North Carolina district (Raleigh and its suburbs) is a case in point.  At issue is which kids get to go to which schools -- even in a unified school district, it is the rule that the schools that offer the best opportunities are located in the neighborhoods with the highest socioeconomic status.  So calls for students to go to schools in their own neighborhoods really do put kids from minority, low-income households into schools with less opportunity.  That's the direction in which the momentum has swung with conservatives ascendant on the new school board.  From the article:

School Board Chairman Ron Margiotta referred questions on the matter to the district's attorney, who declined to comment. Tedesco, who has emerged as the most vocal among the new majority on the nine-member board, said he and his colleagues are only seeking a simpler system in which children attend the schools closest to them. If the result is a handful of high-poverty schools, he said, perhaps that will better serve the most challenged students.

"If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," he said. "Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it."

That approach would be unconventional, to say the least.  As I have thought more about the problems of public education, I have become ever more convinced that for me, the real issue is choice.  I don't really care about testing, accountability, and the like as reform strategies.  What I care about is whether students can be told that, given their residence, they only have one public option.  Why do we put that constraint on public education?  I don't see its value (and would prefer to have smaller schools that would make choice feasible), and since I am wired like an economist, I see the presence of choice as a way to gather hard evidence on people's preferences.  That would be the first step to enable the public system to match those preferences.

I have been doing some research, formal and informal, on the charter school movement.  I very much enjoyed the movie, The Lottery.  It follows a number of children trying to gain access to a charter school in Harlem, who have to enter a lottery for admission since the demand far outstrips supply.  Near the end of the movie, there is a public hearing on the possibility of turning over the facility of a traditional public school that is deemed failing by the high-stakes testing criteria to a charter school that is oversubscribed.  Various stakeholders state their opinions quite clearly -- there is clearly not enough trust in the community to allow the change to be made.