Uncommon Sense

October 8, 2020

The Limits of School Choice

Filed under: Education,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:28 pm
Tags: , ,

I have written before about the “school choice movement,” a thinly disguised privatizing campaign seeking to suck up some of those public dollars being spent on public education. Basically, once “financiers” had ravaged all of the private economic segments, they decided that the vast untapped market of “education” was the last frontier for their rapaciousness.

Lets look at the idea from a cost benefit basis.

Suppose you live in a smallish town which supports a number of grade schools, maybe a middle school or two and a single high school. Your community does it best to create good schools with the highest community standards they can muster but, of course, there are limitations. This high school cannot offer every possible course that might serve a small cluster of students, so they focus on offering courses that will serve the majority.

So, is having a second school even an option for such a community? The answer is clearly no. Dividing the communities funds into two pools to offer the same curriculum doesn’t make any sense at all. This would involve and increase in infrastructure costs with no increase in capacity. So, could not each of the two schools focus their efforts, such as one being an arts magnet school and the other a science magnet school (just for example)? Again, this is problematic. What if the two clusters are of unequal size with the arts school having twice the number of students as the science school? And why spread them out? Why not have schools within the original school, so that classes in both areas could be available to all students? Why deprive the science students of the art classes being taught at the other school? (Scientists are often drawn to music; one of my chemistry professors was a performing cellist.)

Okay we now move up a notch. Our community is now large enough to support two high schools. Should competition between these two play a role in the running of these two schools? For example, let’s say that one school is clearly superior to the other, and you decide to let the parent’s choose which school to place their kids in. (I have seen this happen in public schools through the simple expedient of parent’s lying about where they lived, using an aunt’s address for example to get their kid into a desirable school.) In this case, knowledgeable parents will sign their kids up to the “good” school and desert the “bad” school. The “good” school will suffer from overloading issues (large class sizes, teacher burnout from trying to interact with too many students, wear and tear on facilities, etc.) and the “bad” school will suffer from small class sizes (limiting student interactions), inability to field sports teams, inability to offer classes in advanced topics due to low enrollment, etc.

Plus, you have to ask how it is that parents determine which school is good and which is bad. If we take how well they are informed when it comes to voting as an example, their education “decisions” won’t be as informed as we all might wish them to be.

Currently, schools are set up, mostly, to serve geographic communities. This does have some advantages for racists, of course, with the whole school busing movement testifies to, But there are legitimate reasons for this also. Would you want your child taking a one-hour bus ride, each way, every day for school? Would you want to drive them to school and back this way (four hours per day driving for you)? Such schools also can be more community oriented. Schools in farming regions can teach agriculture courses, for example. (I lived in a rural community in which the high school had a gunsmithing course.) Schools near technology centers can teach more tech classes, etc. That is these schools can teach topics that lead to employment in their community, which helps keep communities together, instead of kids drifting away from the community to find work. Community colleges exemplify these goals.

So, now let’s look at large school districts, having multiple high schools. Is competition between any of them at all good (outside of between student athletic or academic teams)?

To engage in competition that is considered healthy and which leads to superior “products” you have to ask whether or not the “competitors” are equipped to compete. In the major metropolitan area I now live in (Chicago), the athletic teams are segregated by school population. The really large schools don’t compete against tiny schools. The large schools have all of the advantages and would just crush the smaller school teams. The same issues apply to school academic issues. Large schools have thousands of candidates for any sport or academic team (e.g. debate, Math Olympiad, etc.). The really small schools may have only dozens. This is why they make sport movies, e.g. Hoosiers, about a small school team beating a large school team for a championship. Just through sheer numbers, the larger schools have great advantages.

So, let’s say that schools do compete. Do they have control over the tools of competition? Control over things like budget, coaching, teacher quality, etc? Largely they do not. In wealthier areas, there are alumni support groups who donate funds to support athletic teams. In poor areas, the parents cannot afford such things. In rich areas, the tax base is greater and financial support is better. In rich areas, teachers have better living conditions. School districts, no matter how much they recruit, do not determine who applies for teaching jobs at their schools, the teachers make those decisions.

Once teachers are hired, is there an infrastructure in place to determine which are really good, which are adequate and which are so poor as to deserve being fired? The answer is kinda sorta, unfortunately. Unlike in business, there are no production or sales parameters that can be used to determine which people are pulling their own weight. (My own experience is that the vast majority of teachers are “competent.” Very few are brilliant or exemplary and also very few are so bad as to need their contracts terminated.

Now, are their any examples of what competition does for the schools? It turns out there is. A recent survey determined the highest paid “state employee” of each state of the US. Who do you think it turned out to be highest paid state employee most frequently? The governors? The presidents of university systems? The heads of public healthcare networks or public utilities? In most states, the highest paid state employee . . . drum roll, please . . . was one of the state’s university’s football coaches. This is what competition gets you . . . vastly overpaid employees . . . which always have vastly underpaid employees elsewhere as a compensation. In a university system where Nobel-prize winning academics can only hope for a salary as high as $200,000 annually, football coaches make five, six, seven million dollars for the same term.

So, we must be very careful in determining who reaps the benefits of competition as it isn’t always the people being served.

I cannot fathom a scenario in which school competition benefits the students most. We have seen charter school after charter school close business, some do this before they have officially opened. In business this is acceptable, but in educating the youths of our community, this is unacceptable. Those students are required, by law, to be educated. The money spent to educate those students at the closing charter schools is gone. But those students will be lined up for admission at the public schools the very next day and they cannot be turned away . . . no “Sorry, you have already spent your allocation of public education money, you will have to wait until next year to continue your education.” Imagine having been sold a lemon of a car and then dumping that and lining up at a government office for free public transportation. Is that happening anywhere? Does anyone actually want that kind of “education insurance”?

The charter school movement is sucking the funds out of our public schools systems. They are enabled in this effort by supportive politicians which make up supportive laws just for them . . . and these politicians receive “campaign donations,” aka bribes, from the charter operators to do this, often using public funds they were given for other purposes. (Any public school system doing that would result in people in jail.) The charter operators claim to offer “school choice” . . . but do they? Testing shows that charter schools are little different from public schools in educational outcomes. They differ solely in their ability to go out of business, which they do at alarming rates. So, what kind of choice is this? It is a bogus choice. It is like a restaurant making extravagant claims about the quality of their food, so you go and find out that their food is awful. The restaurant doesn’t care because they already have your money and they aren’t dependent upon repeat business. This is the Achilles heel of the “competition” argument. Modern marketing allows people to be hoodwinked into buying what they are selling. When they don’t deliver, you have no recourse. And, they are not dependent upon you being a repeat customer.

There is a word for this kind of business, several actually: scam, con, Ponzi scheme, etc.

Now, I do not deny that there are some reputable charter schools, who serve students adequately. But are these really a “choice” that makes anything better? Imagine a community that has a dozen different car dealerships. Then someone opens up a second, say, Chevrolet dealership which offers the same models at the same prices as the one already there. Do you really have any additional choice or are you and the other car buyers just spreading your car buying money around into more hands?


  1. I reposted this. Good summary. Guy

    Sent from my iPhone, which capitalizes Weirdly & misinterprets words just To keep you on your toes



    Comment by gfbrandenburg — October 8, 2020 @ 8:51 pm | Reply

    • Thanks! Praise from the praiseworthy is always special.

      On Thu, Oct 8, 2020 at 8:51 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 9, 2020 @ 1:45 pm | Reply

  2. […] Ruis writes a summary of the problems with choice on his blog, “Class […]


    Pingback by The Limits of School Choice | Diane Ravitch's blog — October 13, 2020 @ 8:00 am | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on David R. Taylor-Thoughts on Education.


    Comment by drext727 — October 13, 2020 @ 8:11 am | Reply

  4. For the same reason that you don’t play the small high schools against the large high schools, it may not make a lot of sense to put the students who are barely able to keep up with the basics of the class and those who find the course too easy. And yes, there are AP programs, but even the quality and availability of these programs differ, so I think it makes sense to identify some schools as elite – and no, it doesn’t even have to require any private or charter schools. Even in a smallish town you have described with one high school and two middle schools – which exactly describes the town I live in – I’m not sure why there can’t be three schools with grades 6-12 rather than two 6-8 and one with grades 9-12. Even within the same school there could be an elite/gifted track program. But in a larger city, there could be one or a few designated magnet schools, and several smaller adjoining towns could pool their resources together to create a regional magnet school, by, say, paying for it proportionally to each town’s population. That may actually be a better solutions that trying to cram more and more students into the same high school for a town that has a growing population but not growing fast enough to justify a second high school. And if this school is open to all in the region with admission based on exams and/or lottery program, then there’s less of an incentive for parents to lie about the address.

    I went to school in another country, in a city of about 1.5 million people, where there there was a school assignment based on the residence – and from grade 4, my parents were able to pull some strings to transfer me to an elite school that I had to take a 30-40 minute public bus ride across half the city rather than walk to a local school (it helped that I won both the math and language olympiad for the grade in the elementary school, but maybe wouldn’t have been enough, as I wasn’t a straight A student). The school was obviously popular and had a lot of parents who tried to get their kids in – so it solved the demand problem by basically flunking out its worst-performing students back to their locally assigned schools in the city. I don’t know if that school had any entrance exams, but I know some elite public schools in the US do, though I don’t know if they send the non-performing students back to their local schools.

    So there are absolutely ways to create magnet schools within the public school system, and have a choice of schools available, without a lot of extra cost and without making school education a profit extraction enterprise.


    Comment by List of X — October 23, 2020 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

    • Absolutely … and it has been done for years. For some reason Americans only look at American schools … we look in but not out. Many of the Scandinavian schools, aka Finnish schools that seem to be doing so well, have been getting their inspiration from American educational research! They looked outward as well as inward. Would that we could look at our own history and the experience of others dispassionately and just do a better job.

      On Fri, Oct 23, 2020 at 8:19 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 23, 2020 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

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