School Choice – The Free Market Solution

Most Americans now accept and believe that school choice is a good thing.  But the largest teachers’ union, the NEA, still adamantly opposes allowing public funds to follow the student to the school of his choice.  And the political clout of the teachers’ union remains the biggest impediment to improvement in education.

I am a disciple of free-market economics.  Economics steers every human undertaking.  It is ubiquitous in every aspect of our daily lives and has been since the dawn of man.  Every adult on Earth awakens each day and sets out to improve the standard of living for himself and his family.  Nothing is more basic and necessary to our sustained well-being than knowledge of the economic forces that create wealth.

The law of supply and demand is as universally accepted as the law of gravity.  When the supply of something is scarce, it is more valuable.  And when something is valuable and in high demand, more of it will be produced.  In a true free market consumers will always choose the product that best meets their needs at the lowest price, and the profit motive for meeting this demand guarantees the continuous improvement of products.  Free competition for that profit completes the equation.

Free-market supply and demand has brought us smart phones, better cars, nicer homes – comfort, safety and wealth.  In a free market profits and wealth are generated as the quality of products improve and prices go down.  So why hasn’t the quality of education improved in our country, the epicenter of the free market, despite massive spending?  Clearly it’s because education has been removed from the free market.

When a purchase decision is made by someone other than the consumer, the product is unlikely to be what the consumer wants and needs.  Inevitably, educational decisions made by government officials, rather than parents, will not yield optimal results.  Our nation’s educational system is not keeping pace with other countries, and our employers say they can’t find enough employees with basic literacy and math skills.  Most fingers point the blame at our traditional (non-choice) schools.

Times have changed.  Technology has largely eliminated the challenges of distance and time that established the traditional school model primarily still in use today.  As traditional brick-and-mortar neighborhood schools slide toward obsolescence, the ultimate free-market school choice, home schooling, shows rapid growth.  For-profit and non-profit alternative and technical schools are in such demand that exotic lottery algorithms are used to determine which families will win admission.  Private schools enjoy continued enrollment growth.  The traditional government school is now the last resort for most families.

While the concept of school choice is broadly supported by parents, progress in changing the way education is funded has been slow.  In most states home-school and private-school families must still pay taxes for traditional schools that they do not use.  States and districts that support school choice generally fund them with tax dollars through direct allocation, vouchers or scholarships, although at lower rates than they fund traditional schools.  The majority of states and districts still fund only traditional public schools.

Education cannot be removed from economic reality.  The most reliable and quickest tools for process improvement in education are the same time-tested economic incentives that drive the entire world to higher standards of living every day.  The consumers of the education system, parents, must be trusted to make the right purchasing decision for education, the same way they are trusted to buy the right vegetables or the right car to suit their needs.

Until the NEA and the political leaders they financially support agree to allow school funding to travel (or stay home) with the student, education will remain outside the free market, in denial of the proven economic leverage that improves results, lowers costs, and increases standards of living.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side

I study nuclear science
I love my classes
I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
I’m doing all right, getting good grades
The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades

The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades) – Timbuk 3

Career and Technology Education – An Alternative to College

The nexus between education and employment has never been more complex.

Some political leaders and candidates say a college education is so vital in today’s job market that taxpayers should provide it as a free entitlement.  Most high schools view anything short of college admission as a failure.  But many college graduates, despite racking up huge student loan debt, have such a hard time finding jobs that they end up tending bar or waiting tables.  Meanwhile employers contend that they can’t find employees with adequate skills for entry level or more advanced positions.  And foreign students dominate advanced-study courses at our universities, casting doubt on the rigor and subject matter of our traditional high school classes.

Clearly something is out of sync in the school-to-career formula.

School choice is widely embraced as the primary vehicle for improved educational outcomes.  There is no longer any question that schools who compete for students and have the freedom to try innovative methods deliver better results than traditional schools.  Still, many “choice” schools offer the same college-prep curriculum, but in a different building or perhaps using alternative methods.

Recognizing the disconnect between education and jobs, some states and school districts are now focusing more on Career and Technology Education (CTE).

While my home state of South Carolina does not specifically address school choice on a state-wide basis, the department of education’s Career and Technology Education division offers significant profile-of-the-south-carolina-graduatesupport to designated “choice” districts.  Many of these districts now offer alternative education options to their resident families, including CTE centers.  Greenville County Public Schools, for example, enrolls 15% of its students in non-traditional “choice” schools.

The South Carolina Dept. of Education provides standards-based curricular and instructor support for both traditional and specialized schools.  The department hosts training workshops and seminars, administers standards, and tracks performance through a highly organized program funded by a combination of federal grants and state education money.

Suggested and supported course offerings are organized into “career clusters”, and the list is impressive:

  • Agriculture
  • Architecture and Construction
  • Arts, AV Technology and Communications
  • Business Management and Administration
  • Education and Training Careers
  • Finance
  • Health Sciences
  • Hospitality and Tourism
  • Human Services
  • Information Technology
  • Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security
  • Manufacturing
  • Marketing
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
  • Transportation, Distribution and Logistics

The Floyd D. Johnson Technology Center in York, SC shares a campus with a traditional high school, and provides career and technology education for students in the county who apply and are accepted.  Ron Roveri, Director of Career and Technology Education for the state, headed the Tech Center for fourteen years prior to accepting the top state CTE post.

I asked Roveri if South Carolina held the same strong bias toward college prep that I find in other states and districts.  “Not at all,” he replied.  Our program is designed to work seamlessly for students who are preparing to enter college, the work force, or the military after high school.”

As college graduates find it increasingly difficult to land good jobs, and employers struggle to find good employees, the pressure is on our school systems to make students career-ready – even those who don’t attend or graduate from college.  Career and Technology Education choice schools are a solution whose time has come.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right SideEvery morning about this time
She get me out of my bed
A-crying get a job.
After breakfast, every day,
She throws the want ads right my way
And never fails to say,
Get a job!

Get A Job – the Silhouettes


What Is ‘School Choice’ for Special-Needs Students?

All parents want the best possible educations for their children.  “School choice” has been embraced by our country as a way to improve educational outcomes.  Parents can now consider:  What schools are available? What will be taught?  Who pays for it?

These questions are daunting enough for the parents of a “normal” kid.  But not all kids are “normal.”

Some are blind or deaf.  Some have learning disabilities, mild or severe.  Some are autistic.  Some have psychiatric disorders.  Some struggle to just stay alive.  If you think a parent’s challenge to get the best education for a “normal” kid is tough, just imagine getting a good education for a special-needs student.

With a special-needs student, the same questions apply.  What schools are available?  What will be taught?  Who will pay for it?  But because special-needs students make up such a small proportion of the population, results may vary.

Let’s not dance around the main issue:  educating special-needs kids is expensive.  School districts who are accustomed to paying $12,000 per student/year tend to freak out when faced with a $70,000 bill for an itinerant special ed teacher who serves only one student.  Plus these students might affect the school’s standardized testing performance.

It raises the age-old question:  Should special-needs students be mainstreamed in public schools with their “normal” peers, or should they be sent to schools with specialized programs and teachers who are better equipped to handle them and their disabilities?

In 1974 Congress passed the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees children with disabilities a public education appropriate to their needs, at no cost to their families, with these provisions:

  • Children with disabilities must be educated with students who do not have disabilities and should attend the school that is closest to home.
  • Children with disabilities must be provided with support services that assist them in benefiting educationally from their instructional program.
  • An assessment must be completed to determine the child’s needs. This may be done only with the parent’s informed written consent.

Parents of special-needs students will pretty much unanimously attest that getting educational services at any acceptable level involves a tremendous battle – my wife and I raised a totally blind son through public schools and can offer personal testimony.  “School Choices” can seem binary to special-needs families.  Will my kid get a real education, or not?  And where:  local public schools, or special school?

Most states still operate resident deaf / blind schools.  And all public school districts are required to provide special-education services.  Now that most states offer public school choices – traditional schools, charter schools, alternative schools, innovation schools, trade- or discipline-specific schools – the situation is all the more confusing for special-needs families.

An often-heard concern about privately-operated charter and innovation schools is that they will not accept or provide appropriate services for special-needs students, despite federal requirements.  The jury is out, but early studies suggest that parents of special-needs students usually choose traditional public schools over charter schools for their students.

The new alternative school models usually run on lighter budgets, and are sometimes rigidly driven by profit.  Will this relegate special-needs students to the traditional public schools, limiting their access to other schools of choice?  On a recent visit to Denver for the Franklin Center’s #AmplifyChoice conference, I was pleased to see that one of the major independent school networks has schools that specialize in services for students with certain disabilities.

Most likely the key element to the successful education of special-needs students will not change in the new “school choice” environment.  Parents who aggressively advocate for their kids will receive good services, and those who don’t, won’t.  Let’s hope that states and districts keep the interests of their special-needs students at heart as school choices evolve.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right SideWhen some loud braggart tries to put me down,
And says his school is great
I tell him right away
“Now what’s the matter buddy
Ain’t you heard of my school?
It’s number one in the state!”

Be True To Your School – the Beach Boys



Education in Denver Is Getting Better – Thanks to School Choice

Strive Prep Schools

Last week I made a trip to Denver for the Franklin Center’s #AmplifyChoice school choice conference.  It was a deep-dive into the promise and progress of school choice, and a chance to see Colorado’s pioneering effort to ratchet up its educational performance and outcomes.  Here are some surprises:

  • Denver is the fastest growing school district in the United States.
  • Ten years ago only 39% of students in Denver’s public schools graduated from high school on time.  That has improved to about 65%.
  • Denver’s demographics are rapidly changing; 52% of Denver Public Schools students are Hispanic and 70% are low income.  32% come to the district as non-English speakers.

In fact, Denver’s recent educational history is full of surprises.  The Denver public school district was in real trouble in the early 2000s – students fled to the suburbs and to private schools, and academic performance was falling off a cliff, leaving low-income and minority students behind.  And the rapid influx of immigrant students, many without English skills, left teachers and administrators perplexed and unable to cope.  It was evident to everyone – educators, public officials, and citizens – that something had to change.

Since then Denver’s educational policy has been all about change.  After initial resistance from school insiders, the educational institutions embraced the concept of school choice as a vehicle for change and improvement, leading to the development of charter and “innovation” schools.  Some remained under the auspices of the DPS district, while others were standalone institutions or grouped into publicly-funded private districts.  All receive public funding and access is gained through a universal enrollment system operated by a selection algorithm and lottery process.  A number of performance measurement and improvement processes have been implemented by local and state authorities, including a complex data model called the “School Performance Framework”.

We visited the Green Valley Ranch middle school, a unit of the Strive Preparatory Schools charter group, and the occupant of one “pod” in a cluster of five schools built with public education bonds.  The curriculum is similar to the public schools, but there are different teaching methods and extra enhancements available to students.  Like all Denver schools, this is a college prep school, focused entirely on making students ready for college, and the Strive organization boasts a 92% acceptance rate for their graduates.

The Strive group is made up of 97% “of color”, 87% “low income”, 12% “special needs”, and 40% English-learners. I found this curious, since the school is across the street from a large suburban middle-class neighborhood, where one would presumably find at least some white children, and certainly none who are low-income.  The principal explained that there are many factors that determine which of five school choices a given student will win a chance to attend. The algorithm is weighted toward minorities and low-income families.  I got the impression that if a family across the street makes the school “choice” to attend Green Valley, the likelihood of winning that lottery is slim.  It raises the question of school segregation all over again, as critics claim that Denver schools are more segregated now than they were in the 70s.

Like most Denver charter schools, Strive’s teachers are non-union, and they tend to be younger than the public school district instructors.  While starting pay, according to Chryise Harris, Strive’s communications director, is within a few thousand dollars of that at DPS, the gap reaches $15,000 per teacher overall, according to Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.  Strive CEO Chris Gibbons said, “We compete very well for the best teachers available.”  He also expressed a preference for younger teachers because he feels they are better suited to the newer and preferred methods employed by Strive.

Denver’s charter schools have taken on a daunting challenge and are making progress toward meeting the educational needs of their changing community.  While some question the metrics used in the performance comparisons, the charter schools seem to consistently outperform their public school peers academically, at a lower cost per student.  And there appears to be real progress in narrowing the gap between socioeconomic classes.

It’s good to see Denver leading the way in school choice and change.  In Denver, education is getting better.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right SideI used to get mad at my school
The teachers that taught me weren’t cool
You’re holding me down, turning me round
Filling me up with your rules
I admit it’s getting better,
A little better all the time!

It’s Getting Better – Paul McCartney





School Choice and Fairness

school-bus-1368136904lVvQuestions of “fairness” come up often in the debate over school choice.

Is it fair that some students attend quality public schools and get a great education while others are left in failing and dangerous schools?  Is it fair that one school district receives and spends $30,000 per student while another can only muster $6,500?  Is it fair that some families can afford to send their children to private schools while others must attend the school assigned to them by the government?

These are all part of the bigger issue of redistribution of wealth:  Is it fair for the government to take, by force, the property of one citizen and give it to another?

Americans almost universally agree that a good education system is necessary for our collective security and economic well-being, and we are all happy to contribute our fair share to that end.  To a point.

A while back I was discussing school funding with a friend, state representative Ryan Osmundson, who owns a cattle feed business in rural Montana.  I told him I was astonished that many rural school districts had budgets of $22,000 per student and up.  I facetiously asked if a local rancher with four kids went to the school office every fall and wrote a check for $88,000.

Of course they don’t.  And I doubt that very many parents think about where the money came from before it went to their football team, their books, their desks and their teachers.  Reality check:  if you didn’t write a check (or pay property tax) for your school’s average cost per student times the number of students you are sending to school, somebody else is paying your bill.  Is that fair?

But back to Osmundson.  “That’s not the half of it,” he said.  “The superintendent of my rural school district is after me all the time because I am home-schooling my six kids.  He says I am costing his district a lot of money by keeping six students off the school rolls.”

I blinked a couple of times, trying to absorb how not sending kids to school costs money.

Then Osmundson said, “I told the superintendent he should be thanking me.  The way I see it, I am saving the taxpayers $132,000 a year, and paying schools taxes to boot!”

My daughter is home schooling her twins while paying for schools they don’t use.  Fair?

Earlier this month I learned much about school choice at the Franklin Center’s “Amplify Choice” conference in Washington, DC.  Spending per student at a private high school we visited was about half that of the public schools, and yet the quality of education was vastly superior.  Spending and results are clearly not directly correlated.

We agree that it is in our best interest to educate all of our children to the highest standard that is practical, and there is really only one fair way to share the cost of that effort:  education funds must travel with the student to the competing school of his family’s choice.

Whether in the form of school vouchers, or tax credits, or scholarships, or one of the many other “backpack” funding plans, only when the money follows the student will our education system be fair.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side
Treat me right!  Treat me right!
Open your eyes,
Maybe you’ll see the light.
Ooh-ooh, Treat me right!

Treat Me Right – Pat Benatar

K-12 Spending: more, More, MORE!

Education spending.  More is better, right?

For years we have heard reports that teachers are forced to buy paper and supplies out of their own pockets, that some teachers qualify for food stamps, and that there have been “draconian cuts” to K-12 education budgets for decades.  Stories of the heartless underfunding of education are delivered with emotion and indignation, but seldom with statistical validation.

As student scores, college readiness and employability of graduates continue to decline across the U.S., the mantra of educators and progressives increases in volume and pitch.  “More money.  Just give us more money.  All we need is MORE MONEY!”

Seattle Times Headline Ed Spending

At a recent conference on school choice presented by the Franklin Center, Dr. Ben Scafidi shredded many of the myths about American taxpayers short-shrifting students.

Scafidi, director of the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College and State University, said spending per student continues to increase sharply, studies prove that student achievement does not rise as a result of more spending, and there is no evidence that students are any harder to teach than they ever were due to non-school influences.

The most compelling finding of Scafidi’s 2012 study titled “The School Staffing Surge – Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools is this:

From 1950 to 2009 the number of students increased by 98%.  The number of teachers in public schools increased by 252%.  Meanwhile the number of administrators and other school staff increased by 702%.

Scafidi said, “If from 1992 to 2012 our public schools had increased non-teacher staff at the same rate that it increased teaching staff, it would have freed up $26.5 billion per year in education funds.  That could translate to an $8500 raise for every teacher, or a huge reduction in taxes, or scholarships that would allow many students to attend the schools of their choice.”

Opponents of school choice contend that students who remain in traditional public schools are harmed when budget dollars follow students to private or charter schools.  But Scafidi points out that charter and private schools operate so much more efficiently than the traditional public schools that fixed costs for the existing schools (about 36%) can still be covered by available funds and the remaining students in those schools benefit by the reduced variable costs.

Clearly there is no direct equivalency between dollars spent per student and results.  Test scores, graduation rates, and college matriculation at the private and charter schools I visited in Washington, DC were nothing short of miraculous compared to those of the traditional DC public schools, despite spending less than half the amount per student.

In previous posts I have reported school budgets in rural Montana schools of $22,000 per student per year.  While many of these students are getting a great education, by no means are they twice as smart as their city-school peers.  The cost is merely a function of declining numbers of students versus increasing costs, largely spending required by federal and state regulations and not the local school board.

I have personally seen many aggregious examples of non-academic school spending.  One Montana school district with 350 high school students keeps a stable of five cruiser buses, most equipped with personal video players, for their athletic and extracurricular teams.  Schools so small they can only play six-man football travel 350 miles to games.  My local school district in South Carolina just spent $6 million on artificial turf.  That’s got to affect the cost per student, without really improving student outcomes, wouldn’t you say?

Voters and taxpayers: next time you hear educators and progressives hollering for “more, more, more money!” you might ask how the extra dollars will be spent and how will students benefit.  Better yet, demand that the dollars coming from your hard earned pay can go with each student to the school of his or her choice.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side

And when you ask ’em, “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer “More! More! More!”, y’all
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one!

School Choice in DC – It’s Working

lion_gazelle posterMark Roberts, graying but still athletic in his crisp suit and tie, stood in the center of his circle of 15 students.  Every eye was on the articulate and energetic instructor as he probed their understanding of the character in their literature assignment, “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe.  The high school juniors bounced their thoughtful and mature-beyond-years analyses off the teacher and each other.  There was not a slacker in the room; each young scholar was as bright and engaged as the next.  And I thought, “I have never seen a high school class like this.”

Like most conservatives, I have always advocated school choice.  In my Adam Smith / free market / supply and demand worldview, whenever consumers have a choice the right products are delivered at the right cost, guided by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace.  Competition drives excellence in every aspect of life.  Why would education be any different?

Last week at Archbishop Carroll Catholic high school in Washington, DC I saw the proof of the theory firsthand.  Without question, these kids have very bright futures and a leg up on their public-school peers.  Maybe two legs, an arm, and a head.

Located in the middle of one of DC’s lowest-income neighborhoods, Archbishop Carroll has evolved over the years.  The aging but well-maintained facility was originally a boy’s school, one of the first segregated schools in DC.  Carroll later went co-ed, absorbed students from other Catholic schools, and in recent years has become a highly-sought educational alternative for families who want to extract their children from the grim, underperforming DC public schools.  While Catholic religious training is offered at Archbishop Carroll, it is not required, and only about 20% of the students take CCD.

Tuition at Archbishop Carroll is about $13,000 per year – far below the amount taxpayers spend annually to educate students at the failing non-charter DC public schools.  Many families pay the full tuition out-of-pocket.  In the interest of diversity, discounts are offered to white, Asian, and Latino students (the student body is almost entirely African-American), as well as registered Catholics.  Over half the students would not be able to afford to attend Archbishop Carroll without grants from the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Archbishop Carroll competes with other private and charter schools for students by offering families a rigorous, no-nonsense academic program in a safe and uplifting environment.  With strong emphasis on accountability, discipline and character development, Carroll provides the education product and opportunity for future success that most parents want for their children.  But the competition doesn’t end there.

On a tour of the school organized by the Franklin Center as part of their “Amplify School Choice” conference, I asked student Wanofe Mideksa if she is a “superstar”, hand-picked to entertain us.  “Not really,” she explained.  “All the students here are high-achievers, because we have to compete to get into Carroll.”  Students are selected for admission by test scores, admission essays and interviews.  Once enrolled, they have to maintain their motivation levels.  Most students take public transportation, some traveling as long as an hour each way.  They wear jackets and ties, and dresses.  They are addressed as “Mr.” and “Miss”  and decorum is maintained at all times.  The school deliberately sets tuition just beyond the scholarship amount to ensure that every family has “skin in the game.”

And Archbishop Carroll competes for the best instructors.  “Our teachers don’t sit down during class,” said the school president, Mary Elizabeth Blaufuss.  “You won’t find them texting when they should be teaching.  They are here because they want to be part of a serious academic program.”

Education is no different from any other product or service.  When consumers have choices and suppliers have to offer the very best products to compete for their business, everybody wins.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side

Did you ever have to make up your mind?
You pick up on one and leave the other one behind
It’s not often easy and not often kind
Did you ever have to make up your mind?

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?  – The Lovin’ Spoonful