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Thursday, January 19, 2006 

Epstein on School Choice and Some Thoughts on the MPS Problem

Legal scholar and Chicago law prof. Richard Epstein takes a look at the recent Florida Supreme Court decision striking down their school voucher program. He sums up the issue nicely...
...state protected monopolies tend to be sluggish and unresponsive, especially when they are beholden as a matter of state law to recognize and negotiate over the terms and conditions of employment with strong teachers' unions. The results in question are not surprising. System-wide failure that translates itself into expensive and unresponsive education that works far better for the well-to-do families that live in the suburbs than for the urban poor who have neither the wealth nor clout to escape the system.
That's the problem. If you are too poor to move to a better area or too poor to pay for private school out of pocket, you're stuck.

Epstein points out another basic problem...
The ability of parents to opt out of public education and finance their children's education privately is an important check on the state monopoly-an option that is frequently exercised in the form of home schooling programs. But that option still has the unfortunate consequence that, by removing one'’s own children from the school system, parents do nothing to reduce their tax burdens to support the education supplied to other students who choose to remain in the public school system-—or who are trapped by it. Put simply, the escape from the public school system comes at the cost of double taxation.
The people who can afford to pay for private schools still have to pay money into the public education system, a system so broken and unacceptable that they've chosen to abandon it. That's sort of like shipping a box via FedEx but still having to pay the US Postal Service too. Yes, USPS is a government service, but that doesn't mean you should be forced to support it. Also notice that USPS was once a monopoly too. When they had no competition, they couldn't get a package to its destination overnight. Opening the marketplace to a little friendly competition put the spurs to USPS. Now, overnight delivery is available.

Epstein turns to the Florida case specifically. The court said that the provision in their state constitution that forced the state to provide "by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education" didn't have room for a voucher program. Epstein pokes a little fun at the wording of the constitution itself...
The first of these illustrates the danger of adopting hortatory constitutional provisions that promise particular level of state services as opposed to the allocation of powers and responsibilities that are the traditional fare of most constitutions. These Soviet-style provisions of positive rights are always honored more in the breach than in the observance, for there is no way that any constitutional document can guarantee the supply of the need level of resources or expertise, let alone the desired level of services.
Why on earth do we want the courts deciding what an "efficient" school is, or a "secure" school? Florida just drafted a weird constitution.

This issue is really heating up locally. Charlie Sykes and Mikel Holt have joined forces to produce a commercial urging Governor Doyle to lift the cap on the voucher program. Our choice program caps enrollment. The amount of students using the program to attend private schools can't exceed 15% the amount of students in MPS. Doyle has offered to raise the cap but with many strings attached. That may have something to do with the many strings attached to Doyle (WEAC).

I'm very much in favor of school choice. As someone who attended both public and private schools in Milwaukee, I can personally attest to the fact that they are worlds apart. Just look at the issue of value. Per pupil spending in Milwaukee Public Schools is $11,334 per year. Are the taxpayers getting their money's worth? I'd say no. Think about this... the amount of money that it costs to put one kid through 4 years of Milwaukee public high school is the same amount that it cost for my 4 years in private high school AND my 4 years of undergraduate college education. I got a high school diploma and a college degree for the same amount of money that the government spends just providing kid with a high school diploma. This doesn't even begin to examine the quality issues that come up when comparing the actual education behind the two different high school diplomas.

I plan on making a series of posts on this issue. There are a lot of angles to cover and I want to give them their due examination. It's painfully obvious that this state needs a new governor.

Speaking of getting more for less . . . in my home state of Texas, public schools are rated as exemplary, recognized, acceptable, or unacceptable. Studies http://www.tx4tx.org/archive/Venable/Taxpayers%20Demand%20More%20-%20Peggy%20Venable.htm show that the less a district spends per pupil the more likely it is to achieve the exemplary rating. Two other items of note are: highly rated schools tend to spend a greater percentage of their school budget on students than on administration, and there is less gap between teacher’s salaries and administrator’s salaries in high performing districts than in low performing districts.

One must be mindful that a statistical association may not be a relationship. Almost all of these exemplary schools exist in low population districts. High Performance schools are usually a result of the relationship between the parents and the school than any other factor.

The administrative spending is an interesting issue. I think it was Milton Freidman who pointed out that as problem school districts got more money, they also got more administrators. (I'm probably mangling this, I don't have to book with me)

We frequently hear stories of how teachers have to spend their own money to buy classroom supplies. I'd like to know why a school system that spends over $11K per kid can't furnish adequate supplies for the classrooms. Maybe I'll ask one of about a billion bureaucrats and administrators down at Central Office. Hopefully they have an answer.

I'm going to touch on the parent-school connection in the future post. It's an incredibly important part of solving the schooling problem.

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