A Textbook Example of Government Failure

DCPS superintendent Michelle Rhee is doing a heroic job trying to get textbooks into classrooms by the start of school. One problem is that school officials still can’t tell her how many books they actually need. Classes start on Monday. 

Is the problem insufficient funding? As it happens, DCPS’s total gross budget for the last school year was upwards of one billion dollars according to its own website, and its enrollment was about 52,000 students. That means DCPS had total per pupil spending of nearly $20,000 last year, or half a million dollars per class of 25 students. You’d think that would cover books. 

The District’s perennial problem with getting books into students’ hands is a great illustration of what’s wrong with the status quo. When was the last time you walked into a Barnes and Noble or a Borders bookstore in mid August and didn’t see a well-stocked “back to school” display? Why is it so easy for them to handle inventory issues when they don’t even know how many customers they are going to have, while DCPS is flummoxed, year after year, despite having a fairly accurate enrollment number up front?  

The reason is simple: if you’re a bookseller, and you don’t have the books people want to buy on your shelves… they shop somewhere else. Keep that up for a few weeks or months and your bookshop is history. The reason DCPS can keep limping along despite doing such a poor job is that it doesn’t face real competition for that $20,000 per pupil per year in guaranteed funding. Sure, there are charter schools, but places there are limited. Sure, there’s a private school voucher program, but it’s even tinier. DC schools will start demonstrating the efficiency and quality of a competitive business when they start having to compete for the privilege of serving District children. Until then, it simply does not matter how intelligent or dedicated the superintendent happens to be. The central problem is the uncompetitive design of the system itself, not the people in it.