The Corner

Income Mobility and Education Reform

Last week, the Wall Street Journal had a disheartening editorial about the attempts in California to undermine the “parent trigger” reform implemented a few years ago as a response to the abysmal record of some of the state’s public schools. According to the story, a group of parents in the Mojave Desert town of Adelanto filed petitions to “trigger” changes at their children’s failing elementary school. Yet, in the end the effort failed because, it seems, 97 parents were intimidated into withdrawing their support for the trigger. 

As you may know, the “parent trigger” is a mechanism that allows fed-up parents whose children are in a consistently underperforming school to quickly change the school’s leadership, is perceived as a source of hope for many low-income families. By signing a petition, parents can force reorganization of a school’s management or conversion into a charter school. A few years ago, groups of parents of students in several failing schools in California, such as Compton Unified School District’s McKinley Elementary School, did just that.

A parent trigger is not a panacea, but it introduces an element of choice (and hence competition) into a monopoly that has been shortchanging its customers and benefactors for decades. No one would benefit from these reforms more than low-income families, and it would improve income mobility for those at the bottom.

Schooling in the United States is still based largely on residency; students remain tied to the neighborhood school regardless of how bad its performance may be. This is especially true for low income kids whose parents can’t move to nicer neighborhoods.

But more spending isn’t the answer. In fact, we have tried spending more money and putting more teachers in classrooms for more than a generation, with no observable improvements to anything except the schools’ bottom lines. Why? Because of the lack of competition in the K–12 education system is the main problem. Federal spending on education (which amounted to 8.3 percent of total public education spending in 2007) is funneled to students through the institutions to which they are tied, largely regardless of student performance. With no need to convince students and parents to stay, schools in most districts lack the incentive to serve student needs or differentiate their product. To make matters worse, this lack of competition continues at the school level, where teacher hiring and firing decisions are stubbornly divorced from student performance, tied instead to funding levels and tenure.

If reform is to be defined by something other than the amount of money flushed down the toilet, it is time to reverse the flow of power from the top (administrators, school districts, teachers unions, governments) to the bottom (students, their parents, and taxpayers who want their money spent wisely). That means, more competition between schools. That also means that schools and teachers should be made accountable and students should be able to leave failing schools.

Wealthy people already exercise school choice, either by sending their kids to private schools or by choosing where to live based on school districts. Mechanisms like the parent trigger gives less fortunate parents a similar and much less expensive tool. Along with the growth of online education and the charter-school movement, these moves in the direction of consumer choice are heartening and long overdue.

The whole story is here.

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