Commentary

Pulling Up Stakes from Failing Public Schools

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
November 6, 2002
In his 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, economist Albert Hirschman discussed the ways that people negatively respond to failing organizations. In short, they either flee or attempt to change the system from within. But many people working in the failing public schools apparently don’t want to leave and don’t want to fix anything. And they criticize those who want to reform the schools.

For instance, public school defenders often denounce school choice advocates as “political opportunists.” That’s what National Education Association union leader Reginald Weaver said Oct. 19 in the keynote address at a fundraiser for the Greater Kansas City (Missouri) Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He warned the audience of about 1,000 people that vouchers were efforts by “political opportunists” seeking to divide minority communities.

Weaver acknowledged, however, that many black parents rightly have grown disillusioned with public schools, saying, “In past times, speaking before a largely African American audience and standing up for public education, I would be preaching to the choir. But I am acutely aware the choir is not as united as it used to be.”

One reason the “choir” may not be united is that Weaver was speaking in Kansas City, where residents were familiar with the song-and-dance he was bringing to town. Just about everything Weaver wants done (reducing class size, paying teachers more, ensuring sufficient funding) has been tried in Kansas City. In a 1998 study for the Cato Institute, author Paul Ciotti tells the story of the Kansas City, Missouri, School District’s attempt to improve the quality of education. In 1985, a federal judge took partial control over the troubled district on the grounds that it was an unconstitutionally segregated district. The judge invited the district to come up with a “cost-is-no-object” education plan.

Kansas City public school leaders responded by greatly increasing per-pupil spending, increasing teacher salaries, reducing the student-teacher ratio to about 12 to 1, building such things as 15 new schools, an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and paying for field trips to Mexico and Senegal.

The results? As Ciotti reported: “Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration.” By 1997 even the federal judge who had taken over the district took himself off the case, expressing his frustration at not being able to raise test scores after devoting 20 percent of his time over a dozen years to the case.

Despite the numerous amenities featured in Kansas City’s public schools, parents continue to flee those schools for private or charter schools. About 20 percent of public-school students living within the Kansas City School District are now enrolled in charter schools (Weaver, by the way, told reporters that he opposes charter schools).

If there is an indictment of the public school system, it is the fear exhibited by its defenders. They worry that if people are given a chance to leave with vouchers or tuition tax credits, public schools will be abandoned like ghost towns in the Old West. And that may not be such a bad thing.

When an institution no longer serves people well, they react negatively either by complaining or exiting. Some towns in the Old West were abandoned overnight because the town no longer had gold, or a different town nearby was seen as being more attractive because a railroad would be going through. The result was towns with more tumbleweeds than people.

Parents should be encouraged to abandon public schools that aren’t educating their children. They can complain, as Cleveland City Councilwoman Fannie Lewis has. She says she has been trying to fix the public schools in Cleveland since 1951 (more than five decades now!).

If trying to fix the system doesn’t work, parents need to have the option to pull up stakes and move on instead of subjecting their children to schools that can’t educate.

Casey Lartigue is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.