Opinion: Break Up School District Monopolies

Laura Waters | November 29, 2010 | Opinion
Free market competition is the best way to ensure that kids have real school choices

Pop quiz. Who’s the author of the following quote?

“It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

What’s your guess? Some rabid reformer ranting about poor kids trapped in failing schools? A Tea Party booster of state-issued vouchers?

The speaker is the late Albert Shanker, venerated leader of the American Federation of Teachers union and a virtual deity among public educators from every segment of the political spectrum.

I like to think that we’re about to do something in New Jersey that would have made Mr. Shankar proud: End the monopoly that is our public school system and open it up to enterprise and innovation, thus increasing academic opportunities for kids.

The tool that will accomplish this: the newly authorized Interdistrict Public School Choice Program.

The best way to see where we’re going is to take a quick look at where we are:

The New Jersey public school system is splintered into 591 separate and unequal districts. School assignments are determined by Zip Code. There are countless examples of high-performing districts located down the road from low-performing ones, but residential constraints are non-negotiable. Parents of means who reside within a substandard district can simply write a check to one of our 700 private schools or move to a town with a superior school system. For families without that sort of financial flexibility, there’s no recourse but to make the most of a public education system untouched by free-market competition.

That monopolistic culture took a big hit this month when the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) announced that about 70 school districts – more than anyone had anticipated — have applied to the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which opens seats to children from surrounding municipalities at the sending district’s expense. Hypothetically, the parents of a child in a low-performing school district can now fill out an application for that child to attend a higher-performing school within the same county.

For example, a child trapped in Camden’s public schools can apply to attend one of the 11 districts in Camden County that have elected to be choice districts. If applicants outnumber available seats then a lottery is held, just like in public charter schools. Obviously, there are limits: choice districts cap the number of non-district students and the state sets its own caps. But for some students, it’s a potential lifeline.

Let’s think hard: Would you want your child to attend Camden City High, where few kids pass standard state assessments, no A.P. courses are offered, and 39 percent of students graduate? Or would you prefer that your child attend Lindenwold High School, where many kids pass the state assessments, seven A.P. courses are offered, and 75.6% graduate?

If this sort of competition weren’t enough to send shivers down the spines of school leaders, charter schools are suddenly hip. Fifty-one applications were filed for charters this year as opposed to last year’s seven applicants.

To add more fervor to that competitive fire, state aid is down while salary and tax increase caps are in. Local districts are faced with the unfamiliar prospect of fighting for students in order to remain fiscally solvent. While that’s no fun for administrators or school board members, it’s a boon for families. They’re no longer a captive audience. Instead, they’re potential clients empowered with the ability to make educational choices.

Competition in and of itself is no panacea to our public education woes. It’s easy to get carried away with choice for choice’s sake, as Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) seems to have done with his “parent trigger” bill, which would shut down a school if 51 percent of parents vote in favor of such a move.

But as NJ continues to struggle to educate all its students, an injection of innovation and a bit of free market competition can only help.

Somewhere, I like to think, Mr. Shanker is smiling.