Monday, September 22, 2008

On school choice, the free market and unions

[note: sorry for the lack of posting over the last fortnight. Another two weeks of sick kids, sick parents and end of quarter madness at work. Everyone's mostly well now, and the quarter ends soon, so posting should start ramping up here over the next week. Below is something I've been working on over the last two weeks, mostly late at night between work and tea breaks. In cleaning up the article I came across this Marc Fisher article from the 9th that touches on the same issue. Funnily enough I started this article on the 8th as well; it just took me 14 days to complete. That's why Marc writes for a living and I don't.]

An interesting confluence of news lately has me thinking about school choice and its affect (or lack thereof) on improving school systems. There's no single measurement of "success" of school choice; there are many. Each side of the debate will pick and choose the metric that they find helps boost their own position. When I look at DC's version of school choice and determine how successful it is I tend to look at it from two different angles: it is successful from a parent/student point of view? Is it successful from an institutional point of view?

In the first case I believe that school choice in the District has been nothing but successful; parents are voting with their [children's] feet, choosing charter schools at an ever growing rate. Charter schools account for over a quarter of all public school children. Now, arguments have been made that charter students do no better than public school students. Testing scores over the last few years doesn't give much support for this notion, but for the sake of argument lets assume that its true. In my opinion parents still come out ahead since they now have more control of where students go to school. Charter schools tend to be smaller, [from my experience] incredibly committed to parental involvement, disconnected from DCPS's burdensome bureaucracy, hiring/firing rules, etc, can experiment with curriculum / teaching philosophies and seem to provide safer facilities for this students (this last point is strictly anecdotal, wish I had more data). Finally, if you end up not liking the charter school your kid attends you can alway pull them at the end of the year and place them into another charter or traditional public school. Even with the District's liberal out-of-bounds rules mobility within the DCPS schools is a lot more difficult; there are too few "good" schools that everyone tries to transfer into. Again, assuming that the academic achievement is no different between the traditional public school and a charter, the above reasons are compelling enough to place a student into a charter school,

So what about the other view of school choice: the institutional view? School choice proponents like to tout competition created by school choice program as driver of innovation in old system. Somehow the ability for students to leave traditional DCPS schools "will make DCPS better." On the whole I have mostly disagreed with this argument. Free market drives innovation/survival due to market forces: if the market wants something and you cannot provide it at a profitable price then you either find a way to provide that something at a profitable price or you're soon out of business. Think of the current status of the automobile industry*. Over the past decade or so Ford & GM have made the bulk of their profit off of large SUVs and trucks. This was all peachy when the price of gas was low enough that the difference between filling the tank of a gas guzzler and a gas sipper is relatively negligible. Make a gallon of gas $4 and the economics completely change. The population at large all of the sudden now care about fuel economy. The market for new and used SUVs and trunks has tanked, and consumers are buying more and more economic cars. In order to survive Ford and GM are now doing their damnedest to ramp up the design and production of higher MPG automobiles. Market forces are work. Adapt or die.

The problem with school choice in DC is, unlike Ford and GM who are penalized at the showroom for relying too heavily on trucks and SUV, DCPS has never suffered in any real way for having to compete with charters. Up until now there has been no real consequences for continued failure. In fact, DCPS has always been rewarded for keeping the status quo. The Feds are going to give money to fund the District's voucher program? To grease the skids lets give the same amount to DCPS. Even Rhee and Fenty's reforms were (mostly) politically driven, not market driven. The current flurry of change is happening simply because Fenty (and Rhee by proxy) are driven to change them. Fenty could have kept the status quo and frankly, nothing would have changed. DCPS would have continued to flounder along.

But there are some things that have been happening lately that have made me rethink DC's school choice and its affect on institutional change. First, I've be slightly baffled by some of the actions of the Washington Teacher's Union (WTU). Their President, George Parker, has been way more willing to challenge the status quo in union / school district relationships than I would have though possible. Teachers unions are some of the most influential unions in the country, and very few people ever cross them and come out unscathed. The Unions almost always bargin from the position of strength, so Parker's willingness to even discuss things like losing tenure and performance based pay felt like he was willing to trade away positions that previously would be considered untouchable... and for what? WTU Veep Nathan Saunders represents the old school and is wondering the same thing: Why is Parker willing to walk away from what, up to now, has been so successful (and by successful, I mean successful for the union, not necessarily for DCPS or its students)?

Turns out the answer just may be "school choice." DCPS is losing students. It has been for a decade, and appears to continue unabated, even after a year of Fenty & Rhee's reforms. Charter schools, who are the main beneficiary of DCPS's exedus, don't have to hire unionized teachers. The math is simple: less students is DCPS = fewer teachers in DCPS; fewer DCPS teachers = fewer due-paying union members. If the exodus isn't stemmed soon this will spell big trouble for the union. In small way free market economics is doing what years (decades?) of debate/politics couldn't do: change entrenched union behavior.

This isn't to say that Parker and Rhee will get their way. There are other ways to stem the flow of students. One way would be to curtail or stop outright the growth of charter schools. There have already been a number of attempts to do just that. Another avenue would be to force all charter schools to hire unionized teachers. If Saunders and the old guard at the WTU come out victorious in WTU's power struggle I would expect we'll see the union use its muscle to blunt the advancement of charters than I would to see it help revitalize DCPS.

* The automobile analagy works in another way as well. It took one year of $4 gas to do what environmental groups couldn't do for decades though the legislative / judicial process: force Detroit to make smaller, more efficient cars.

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