Tuesday, January 29, 2013

National School Choice Week: What Fayette County Should Do

This is National School Choice Week!  I passionately believe this is an idea whose time as come--the school your children go to should not be dependent on an accident of address.  As a parent who has experience with both public and private school, as well as homeschool, I think I have a pretty good vantage point on this issue.

My community, Fayette County, Georgia, is undergoing yet another painful round of redistricting the public schools.  My children currently attend a private school in the next county, so this doesn't directly affect my home, but it does affect my neighbors and our general sense of community.

One major issue is the threat of two community elementary schools, each one the center of their town, being closed.  (Even though they are in the towns, the schools are part of the county system.)  Both towns feel like they are losing their identity if they lose their school.

There is also the problem that this is the third time we have gone through a redistricting upheaval since my children have been in school, just over eight years. That is a lot!  Opinions are sharply divided here in Fayette County about the cause:  poor financial managment, cronyism in the planning department, optimistic growth estimates in the face of a recession...who knows.  But I have some ideas for going forward, why Fayette County ought to embrace CHOICE as one way out of this predicament.

The parents are understandably upset.  They have no say beyond electing the school board members; now they sit and wait to be told their fate.  Tons of psychological studies show that the highest stress is experienced by people who have no control over a situation.  I hate to say it, but these parents have created the situation themselves.  If they had actively chosen their child's school, they could vote with their feet by staying or going as they see fit.  Instead, they have entrusted bureaucrats and politicians with the second most important decision that they can make regarding their kids.  (Don't get mad yet.  Hear me out.)

Second, the schools have a much harder time building community when that community shifts every few years.  They are so dependent these days on the extra funds brought in by the PTOs--how much easier that would be if the parents there were certain they would be staying at that school regardless of where they chose to live!

And, shutting a school saves surprisingly little money.  I saw a statistic here in Fayette County that more than 90% of a school's expenses are in personnel.  Most of the personnel will be retained even as schools are shut; the savings to the system are minimal while the costs to some communities are enormous.

Here's what I think Fayette County should do:
  • Keep the current schools open, assuming that each facility is in decent shape and doesn't cost remarkably more to operate.
  • UNDISTRICT everything.
  • Guarantee to each child that they can attend the school closest to their home address.  
  • Allow each child to choose their preferred public school, if they choose public school.  This would be subject to space limitations.
  • Charge for buses.  (This is a big change.) Bus routes would pick up and drop off at fewer points.  
  • Pay a refund to students who opt out of the system altogether, either to homeschool or attend some alternate school.  (An even bigger change!) Calculate the refund as some percentage (30% 40%?) of the total cost per pupil in the county.  Figure that the county will save some money by not having those children in the system at all.
  • Actively market the properties that do close (or are unused right now, several of them!) to churches and schools.  Quit being afraid of the competition of private school and embrace it.
Look.  Public school parents over-value the "free" education their kids receive.  It comes at the price of powerlessness when changes are made.  Pushing some control back into the hands of parents could help to solve some of these problems.  Underperforming schools would be readily identified by the students and parents voting with their feet!

And this would help private and homeschool parents to buy into the education system in the county, too.  As it is, we like to live in the bubble that says that the public schools really don't affect us because we aren't there.  But they do matter.  They matter to the whole community.

This would even help the Board of Education take responsibility for education in our county, too, rather than just be the group that runs the public schools.  Learning and school are changing--I really think that school choice would free the system to respond quickly to these changes, by freeing the parents themselves to make the changes they see fit for their kids.

Yeah, it's a little utopian.  But something needs to be done.  I think there's a start here.


John Fraser said...

Assuming that the bureaucracy could actually make decisions based on education principles, I think many of the proposals you suggest would be fine.

However, I have little faith in a system of education that has politics at its core. Cronyism, Old Boy's Network, whatever you choose to call it ... it destroys school systems. (For the record, it destroys churches, too!) One thing capitalism has proven is that the most effective systems are those where the management has a vested interest in the success of the organization (or organism, if you prefer). When "low taxes" is a possible perspective for "success," the system will be hampered. (And no, I'm not a big tax guy. I think we should pay reasonable taxes and expect those taxes to be used appropriately and not mismanaged).

Personally, I'd be in favor of looking at the privatization of the school system. It would wreak absolute havoc on the "right to free education." But I think it would go a long way to fixing the issue.

Anyway, just a random bunch of comments.

Cheryl said...

I'm utopian. I actually think the entire structure should and will come down. But I also think that if these stupid bureaucrats could pull their heads out...never mind. If they could possibly take a tiny baby step outside the box, the benefits to the kids would be enormous.