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Rethinking the Open Educational Marketplace

When Milton Friedman wrote in 1955 that the best way to improve schools was to empower parents, he planted the seed of a movement that is now bearing fruit. But it is turning out to be a disappointing harvest, as events in New Orleans and New York City illustrate.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 initially was a blessing in disguise for Friedman acolytes because almost all public schools in New Orleans reopened as charter schools. These new schools have posted impressive academic outcomes, but the trouble is that demand continues to outstrip supply even after seven years. Perhaps the gap will be narrowed under Louisiana's new laws that will give all parents an average of $8,500 to use as they see fit for their children's education. The 400,000 low-income children in the state will be also eligible for vouchers to attend private schools ("Reform School on the Bayou," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 16).

New York City faces a similar problem. Demand for high quality middle schools persists in exceeding supply ("Tutoring Surges With Fight for Middle School Spots," The New York Times," Apr. 16). Contrary to what Friedman predicted about supply meeting demand, only four new schools serving middle grades in Manhattan have opened since 2002. Equally frustrating, more than 2,400 children who are slated to enter kindergarten in the fall have been put on wait lists at schools closest to their homes. The numbers are similar to those published last year.

If Friedman were correct, the 140 failing schools that have been shuttered and replaced by smaller schools and charters since 2003 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office should have closed the chasm between supply and demand. However, that hasn't been the case because students from failed schools don't just disappear. They turn up at the front door of other traditional schools, where their deficits overwhelm the ability of teachers and principals to meet their needs. In other words, New York City is in the midst of a perfect storm that Friedman did not forecast.

Friedman also overlooked another factor: economies of scale do not apply to education. No matter how often the process is repeated, the cost of opening new schools does not diminish. Schools are extremely labor-intensive undertakings. Moreover, real estate is so expensive in most cities where the need is greatest that few entrepreneurs are willing to invest. As a result, only the most determined and affluent parents have a realistic chance of getting their children into existing coveted neighborhood schools. They do so by paying thousands of dollars for tutors and for test-prep courses that determine who is admitted.

There's one final flaw. When a school is marked for closing, the process doesn't happen overnight. Elective classes and after-school programs are slowly eliminated, and the best teachers seek new positions. Students who remain in the doomed school feel the effects as the school is painfully bled dry ("In Schools Cut by the City Ax, Students Bleed," The New York Times, Apr. 17). This has created push back from the Working Group on School Transformation, which recommends strategic intervention rather than closings.

It's possible that other cities will be more successful because conditions there are different from those in the the Big Easy and in the Big Apple. However, I wouldn't count on it. In the final analysis, it's better to provide struggling schools with the support they need than to rely on an open educational marketplace for a solution. I hope that Friedman's supporters will keep this in mind.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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