Monday, January 30, 2006

All Hail the Free Market!

The Journal-Sentinel reports today that an eight-year-old provision in Wisconsin's open enrollment program will end after this school year.

This provision, which has been around since open enrollment began in 1998, allows a school district to limit the number of students who transfer out of its district under the open enrollment policy. Since each time a student leaves a district the state aid provided to that district decreases, the open enrollment policy could actually work to shut down certain school districts unless limits on how many students could leave the district are in place. The absence of the provision for the 2006-2007 school year threatens the financial stability of at least 10 rural school districts, according to the JS report.

It simply doesn't pay to have a district of, let's say, 100 students. The costs of the teachers at different grade levels, the administration, etc., are simply too high. If districts reduce to a certain size, they get eliminated. It doesn't take all of the students leaving the district to make that happen. So what, then, happens to those students who chose not to leave the district before it closes down? Well, they're moved into another district. So much for school choice.

In the anti-cap world of Republican educational politics these days, the open enrollment cap presents an interesting case. Some Republican state legislators have proposed allowing the open enrollment cap to rise to 15% of a district's total enrollment (right now the cap is 10%) and then keeping it at that level. According to Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon), "I do believe parents have the right to choose their district, but we have to consider and understand the realities of what's going on in some of these small rural districts."

Republican legislators who are sticking to their anti-cap guns simply reference the free market for their defense. This is Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) on the issue: "If students are leaving a district in large numbers, it becomes important for that school district to evaluate why they're leaving and change what they're doing. ... That, to me, is just based on market principles and competition. It creates a competitive environment."

In other words, it doesn't matter that some students still chose to stay in the school district that is going to be closed, they're choice just wasn't competitive enough. And I'm not arguing that all choices should be honored by the state. There are, however, some real incentives for some kids to be educated in a school district that is a reasonable distance from home. Transportation is a big one. Forcing students to attend a district that's many miles from their home will not only require long bus rides each day to and from school, it could also prevent those students who cannot find personal transportation from participating in school activities that do not correspond with the regular school day when the buses are running.

Some people will undoubtedly argue that capping the open enrollment program is forcing some students to stay in a district when they'd prefer to leave. This is only half true. When selecting where you live, everyone knows that school districts are determined by the location of the house, condo, apartment, etc., you choose. I'm not saying you should be completely stuck in that district if you want to partake in public education. The state should provide reasonable accomodations to allow students to travel from district to district, which is what open enrollment does. But when open enrollment threatens the sustainability of one of those districts, that's when it becomes unreasonable. We allow receiving school districts in the open enrollment program to cap the number of students they accept from other districts to prevent against overcrowding, why should we not allow sending districts to make similar caps to prevent against undercrowding?

The fact is that what the free market dictates is not always in the best interest of society as a whole. Simply relying on a free market ideology to drive all of your policy decisions, like Vukmir and others are doing, without thinking through those policies on an individual basis is short-sighted governing.

Besides, there are numerous reasons students could be opting for open enrollment in other school districts, only one of those possibilities is that their local district is failing. Just as likely are scenarios where the local district isn't able to offer certain extracurricular activities a student is seeking or the local district is not considered by a parent to be as sound academically as a neighboring district. Neither of these situations mean the local district is necessarily failing. They just mean that for those students who can afford personal transportation, a requirement of participating in the open enrollment program, a neighboring district is considered a better option.

In some instances, the free market simply can't see those students who are either happy with their local school or need it for reasons such as transportation. Is the free markets inability to se them reason enough to close down those districts?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If that many students are leaving, maybe it is time to consolidate districts. Who needs two administrators, etc?

Where should the money be spent? Right, the classrooms, not on the bureaucracy.

January 31, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for your comment.

First, administration isn't the only cost. Classroom expenses run pretty high in and of themselves.

Second, you can't separate administration and other non-teaching functions of a school district from what happens in the classroom. Grades need to be processed, technology needs to be kept up, schedules need to be put together, facilities need to be managed, events need to be organized, and the list could go on and on. What it takes to run a successful school district today only starts with what happens in the classroom. The days of one-room schoolhouses where there's nothing more than one teacher and a bunch of students are long gone.

Consolidating school districts in geographically-dispersed rural areas isn't like combining small neighboring suburban districts like Whitefish Bay and Shorewood, for example. Plus, consolidating districts doesn't necessarily save money. The districts that the students move to will need to increase size in terms of facilities, teachers, administration, etc. Not to mention the cost of busing all of those students miles and miles to their new schools.

January 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Consolidation of administration and districts is a VERY, VERY good thing for students and taxpayers.

It is time.

January 31, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Well, since you presented such a strong argument with "VERY, VERY," I don't really know how else I could possibly respond.

February 01, 2006  

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