Why Don’t Public Schools Give Parents What They Want?

The Washington Post reports today that it’s “harder to describe” the mission of one of the magnet schools in Arlington County, Virginia: Arlington Traditional School. Not that hard, if you just read the quotes from the principal and parents:

“Our emphasis is on basic education,” Principal Holly Hawthorne said….

“The word ‘traditional’ implies a cachet to us,” said Craig Montesano, a lobbyist for the shipping industry who visited Arlington Traditional with his wife. To him, the word conjures ancient Rome and Greece and the promise that his daughter will be “grounded in the learning that has come down through the ages in Western civilization.”

Some parents say the selective nature and more disciplined culture remind them of private school. 

And it seems to work:

The federal government has twice named Arlington Traditional a National Blue Ribbon School for its academic performance. And its students routinely outscore district averages on the Standards of Learning tests.

And parents like it:

Last spring, 298 families applied for 72 slots.

So why doesn’t the Arlington County School Board expand it, or build more such schools around the county to accommodate all the parents who want their children to get this exotic thing called “traditional” or “back to basics” education? Maybe they just didn’t realize until today – or last spring – how popular it is? Well, as it happens, I live in Arlington, and I recall that the Washington Post has been reporting on the popularity of Arlington Traditional School since the late 1970s. Parents used to camp out overnight to get their children into the school until they created a lottery system. Through the Nexis service, I found some of the stories I recalled. Most of these articles are not online. 

Here’s what the Post reported in September 1982 when the school, then called Page Traditional School, was three years old: 

For Arlington school board member Margaret A. Bocek and her husband, the first day of school this year began late Monday night when they and 40 other parents camped out on the lawn of the county’s Page Traditional School to ensure that their 3-year-old children could attend there on opening day, 1984…. 

In the last three years, such parent stakeouts have become commonplace at Page, a public alternative school that stresses a traditional format of self-contained classrooms, regular homework and strict standards for behavior and appearance. Page parents have been lobbying recently for expanding the program to the eighth grade and for expansion of the school’s program to other schools.

And here’s a report from September 1985:

This year, the line began to form at 10 a.m. on Labor Day, 23 hours before Page Traditional School in Arlington would begin accepting applications for the kindergarten class of 1987.

By the time Principal Frank Miller arrived at 9 a.m. the next day, about 80 parents were waiting on the lawn – more than triple the 25 slots that would be available in the school’s one kindergarten class.

Seven years after its much-heralded establishment as a back-to-basics, structured alternative to the open-classroom schools popular in the mid-1970s, Page is a cause of both enthusiasm and consternation in Arlington.

Each September, eager parents camp out on the lawn at 1501 N. Lincoln St. to put the names of their 3-year-olds on the kindergarten waiting list.

December 1991:

In an effort to stop overnight campouts by parents eager to register their children at Arlington’s three popular alternative schools, county school officials have proposed dropping the first-come, first-served admissions policy in favor of a random drawing.

An October 1999 headline:

School’s Excellence Is in Demand

Now you’ll notice that the 1991 story mentions three “popular alternative schools,” and indeed the other two, Drew Elementary and H-B Woodlawn Secondary, offer a very different alternative, a more informal, individualized style of education reflecting the “alternative” ideas of the 1960s and 1970s. The Post referred in 2004 to Woodlawn’s “quirky, counterculture ways.” In November 1991 the Post reported that “Last weekend, dozens of parents camped in front of H-B Woodlawn to register their children for the 70 sixth-grade slots.”

In 2012 the Arlington school board did vote to expand Arlington Traditional School by 12 classrooms. But why did it take so long? And why not open more “back to basics” schools, and also more “counterculture” schools, if that’s what parents want?

I wrote about that years ago in a book I edited, Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City.   

In the marketplace, competition keeps businesses on their toes.  They get constant feedback from satisfied and dissatisfied customers. Firms that serve customers well prosper and expand. Firms that don’t respond to the message they get from customers go out of business. Like all government institutions, the public schools lack that feedback and those incentives.

No principal or teacher will get a raise for attracting more students to his or her school. A successful manager in a private business gets a raise, or gets hired away for a bigger salary. A successful entrepreneur expands his or her store or opens a branch. Can one imagine a public school choice system allowing a successful principal to open another school across town and run both of them? 

If Virginia were even a little bit tolerant of charter schools, or if Virginia allowed real private school choice, parent groups or entrepreneurs could organize to deliver the kinds of schools – from traditional to counterculture – that families want. But in a bureaucratic monopoly, the local paper can run thirty years of stories about parents desperate to get their children into particular types of schools, and the central planners can ignore them.