06 November 2005

Pitching Schools.

When I was growing up, you went to the school assigned to your neighborhood, you attended the grade higher than the one you did in the previously year in 98-99% of all cases, and your children were assigned to particular teachers at that school without parental input. There was no formal procedure to change either of these assignments, although it wasn't unheard of for a particularly pushy parent to storm into the principal's office at a school, insist that a different teacher be assigned to their child, and be successful.

This isn't how it works in Denver any more. Any student in Colorado can apply to attend any particular school in Colorado, and parents often request (with requests resolved by a priority and lottery system) particular teachers or programs within particular schools. In this system it is in the best interests of parents to attract other like minded parents to your child's school. This builds support for programs you like, and prevents enrollments from getting so low that your school is shut down or programs that you like there are cancelled.

Perhaps it was inevitable then, that eventually, what happened a day or two ago would happen. A parent (I presume) from Lincoln Elementary School, which serves Baker and West Washington Park, came to our door, flier in hand, lauding the virtues of Lincoln Elementary, the fact that it has only 175 students, and, its Montressori program. What looked like the PTA at a relatively ordinary public elementary school -- not a private school, nor a charter school, had begun a marketing campaign for the school. I suspect that this won't be the last such pitch we receive.

Now, I don't want to leave the impression that this is a bad thing. It isn't. While Milton Friedman's argument for voucher schools has elements that I could quibble with, his fundamental observation is right: Giving parents an ability to choose which school their children attend gives them far greater democratic influence on the school system than they have through political channels, and this is more true, not less true, for children of working class and poor parents who have zero political clout in most cases.

The problem with the analysis is that it fails to take into account how a transition from education through state sponsored schools to a system where schools are more or less independent plays out. In the current system, private education is predominantly religious, because that is a reason that people are willing to pay for a private education for their children when they could get a non-religious one for free, and because churches have subsidized tuitions. But, giving people financial assistance to attend those schools does not create more private school slots in the short term and deprives the public schools of badly needed resources.

In contrast, choice within a public school system, as we have in Colorado, has a similar effect to a voucher system, but does so in a way that tends to redirect existing school resources, producing far less upheaval, rather than abandoning existing schools in favor of fly by night, start up private schools. The evidence that this does happen, even within the public school system was on my doorstep this week. Schools are developing special programs and looking for ways to attract students. They are trying to compete in the educational marketplace. They are making their appeals, not to school board administrators or state legislators, but to individual parents who have a strong say in the matter. And, to the extent that individual schools do compete, it all happens without school buildings going vacant, without mass layoffs in public school systems, and without the wasteful exercise of trying to start over from scratch.

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