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A Response to “The Financial Fantasies of Choice”

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Having read your article, “The Financial Fantasies of Choice,” in Education Week’s digital edition (below), as an education reform (including “choice”) advocate, I find it necessary to respond to the assertions you’ve put forth.

Assertion #1:  System Savings

You present the historical case of Pennsylvania’s conglomeration of smaller township districts into larger, more “cost-effective” districts as the triumph of an “obvious piece of common sense.”  As proof of this assertion, you state: “it is cheaper and more efficient to educate 100 students in one school building to spread them out over four separate buildings.”

Education Reform Advocate Response #1:

That it is cheaper to educate 100 students in one building rather than four is a reality in nearly all cases; determining whether or not it is “more efficient” is not possible given the information you’ve provided.  Efficiency is measure in which two distinct metrics are compared, most typically price vs time, time vs quality or quality vs price.  Institutions that focus only on price and do not include time or quality in their self-assessments ultimately fail.  Equally important, organizations that do not use price in their strategic calculus are ultimately doomed.  The bottom line, without achieving an acceptable quality threshold, cheaper schools are a waste of scarce resources.

Assertion #2: Cost Per Pupil

You provide the example of a journalistic idiom that total cars stolen divided by the number of second in a year accurately reflects the number of car thefts in any given second.  Using this foil, you make the case that district spending cannot be directly traced to each student as an individual.  Further, you state that “public schools are brutalized by this fiction (cost per pupil) time after time,” citing the inability of school districts to adapt financially to changes in student population.

Education Reform Advocate Response #2:

By definition, statistics are an amalgam used to evaluate data sets.  Your example demonstrates the limitations of statistics to accurately represent a unique individual or occurrence- particularly when using a statistical measure designed for no purpose other than to create a visceral sound-bite.  Over time, institutions develop self-perpetuating inertia that is maintained and accelerated by the individuals deriving the highest per-capita benefits from them.  Instinctively, those on school district payrolls and vendor lists, act to defend the “life” of this institution that maintains their livelihood by carving out every possible bit of revenue that cannot be directly attributed to students when calculating per pupil costs (e.g. revenues allotted to legal, facilities and administrative costs) while maximizing “claw-back charges” in the form of district mandated fees.    Regarding the inability of districts to adapt financially to student population changes, the reality that every other institution in our nation is required to reallocate resources to meet changes in demand and revenues aside, I am unaware of ANY state voucher or public charter school law that does not make financial accommodation to school districts by allowing them to pay less than the full amount of the district’s own per-pupil calculation to “choice” schools.  The bottom line, every study done on per-pupil funding indicates that school district revenues per pupil significantly exceed the funding for students in the same district in “choice” schools.

Assertion #3: Disenfranchisement

You offer the argument that because school boards are elected, asking for a greater say in your own child’s education beyond a ballot is akin to having “soldiers trained and equipped by the taxpayers going back home and saying, ‘I am only going to protect my own house.’”

Education Reform Advocate Response #3:

The purpose of government is to act collectively, on behalf of the people, to engage in activities that are fundamental to a society acceptable to its citizens that impossible (or extremely impractical) to accomplish by individuals or private organizations.  The validity of your argument rests on the assumption that the right of all children to “a free and public (K-12) education,” requires that the government be the institution that actually “delivers” that education.  School “choice” did not become a national issue because it was the pet project of some policy “wonk;” the issue of “choice” has catapulted itself into the hearts and minds of Americans because our “system” of public education was badly failing nearly 1 out of every three children.  On this, the voters have spoken, and they’ve demanded schools of “choice.”  The bottom line, until a majority of citizens vote to demand “choice,” at a family level, as to the disposition of individuals and/or units of our armed forces, your argument is specious.

Assertion #4: Zero Sum Game

You state: “The tax dollars involved are finite. Money taken for one school must come from another school. And if we try to run two homes on a strict one-home budget, we are playing a zero-sum game that guarantees disappointment for some players.”

Education Reform Advocate Response #4:

Ignoring the fact that since the 1960s, that no matter how its defined, spending for K-12 education in the United States has grown far faster than our population, inflation or GDP, I accept the statement that public education is a “zero-sum game.”  Where we disagree as to where we should measure that sum.  Every assertion put forth in your article indicates that you believe that sum should be measured at the level of the school district.  Those of us supporting “choice” believe that sum should be measured at the level of the student.  On the existential question of public education, I unapologetically cast my lot with those committed to the proposition that the education of children must trump all other priorities in public education- even if it results in the destruction of our current “system” of public education.

I thank you for your service as teacher and for dedication to the children of our nation.  While I disagree with you, I respect your taking a stand and doing what you believe to be in the best interests of students.  I welcome your response and continued dialogue.


John J “Tiny” McLaughlin III