Friday, July 13, 2012

How Should our Public School System be Organized?

In Ohio, a public school district is "political subdivision" which governs itself via an elected School Board, and is funded with public money raised through its authority to levy taxes. Except for the case of a municipal school district - and Cleveland Municipal Schools is the only case I know of - a school district is a separate and distinct entity from township, village, city and county governments.

A school district's boundaries may or may not coincide with those of a municipality. The Hilliard City School District encompasses all of the City of Hilliard, parts of the Cities of Columbus and Dublin, and all or part of several townships. In terms of registered voters, the largest political subdivision in Franklin County is, well, Franklin County. After that, it's the City of Columbus, Columbus City Schools, South Western City Schools, then Hilliard City Schools.

This is the way we've choosen to organize public schools in Ohio, but it's not the only option. In my home state of West Virginia, school districts are organized by county, so the entire state has only 55 school districts compared to the 600+ here in Ohio. Would the people of Ohio be better served if we had only 88 school districts?  Are there economies of scale, e.g. in regard to administration? By the way, Columbus City Schools has by far the highest per-pupil spending on administration in Franklin County (Hilliard has the lowest).

Or why not just go to a statewide school system?  In reality, the State of Ohio controls a great deal of what goes on in a local school district. Even though we have our own set of policies governing our district, the language of many of our policies is dictated by the Ohio Revised Code.

While we are thinking in these terms, why not just have a national education system? Isn't the primary goal of the Common Core effort to standardize curriculum across the nation?  While not a program run by the Federal government, the Common Core standard has been adopted by 45 states, including Ohio in 2010.

The primary argument for the preservation of local school districts seems to be the belief that local school boards are more responsive to the unique cultures of their communities, which residents fear would be lost if governance were turned over to county, state or national authorities. Others argue simply that smaller government is better than bigger government, and I tend to agree.

But I think the motivation for wanting to preserve the system of local school districts is much less philosophical. I think local school districts are America's way of implementing an economic caste system - a way to make it feel safe to commit a large fraction of a family's economic resources to buy a house in a particular location, while simultaneously erecting a virtual fence to keep out those felt to be of lesser economic status, who might somehow diminish property values.

Here is how I heard Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law professor and now candidate for the US Senate in Massachusetts, describe the situation five years ago in an interview at UC/Berkeley:
Interviewer: You point out in this book and in your writings that little pieces of this story, for example, the focus on the family, the concern about education of one's children, the need to get in the right neighborhood to get the right school, the commitment to a mortgage that puts you even more on the edge -- these things impact this very vulnerable situation even to a greater extent over time, and it's all about "I want my kids to have the best education."
Warren: "I want my kids to have a shot of making it in the middle class." This is what it's about for parents. And so, what does that mean in America today, because of our peculiar way of financing higher education? It means you've got to get to the right zip code, because the right zip code will determine the school assignment for your child. And what's happened is prices have shifted on those zip codes.
Here's [another example]. On this one the government doesn't have data going back quite so far, so the numbers are a little bit off, but starting in 1983 they've got data. When you compare the rise in housing costs for families with no children, households with no children, singles, anyone who doesn't have children at home, minor children, and households that have minor children, households without children from 1983 to 2005 saw a 50% increase in what it cost to buy their housing, their three-bedroom, one-bath. Families with children saw a 100% increase in that same time period. Why? Not because families with children have a bigger need for granite countertops or spa bathrooms, but because housing is the substitute way to buy into a decent school system. We pulled out the studies in this that show that housing prices will reflect things like a five-point difference in third grade reading scores. [This difference] will translate into thousands of dollars of difference in the price of houses in neighborhoods that are otherwise matched for all their amenities and sidewalks and police service, and everything else.
And I want to be clear here. This is white families, African-American families, Hispanic families, Asian families, it's across every spectrum. Families with children are tightening the belt one more notch, are working extra hours, are sending both people into the workforce, to try to get into the best possible school district they can get their children into. Families are in financial trouble, not because they're irresponsible but because they're too responsible. They're trying to do it for the kids.
You can listen to the entire interview on YouTube, or read it here. I thought it was fascinating.

But here's the point. We like to say that America's public school system is the great equalizer. That's an illusion. More than perhaps any other American institution, our public school system as currently organized is the perhaps the most effective mechanism for economic segregation we've created to date. Indeed, every kid in America gets to - is forced to attend school and be given the opportunity to learn to a certain level. 

But those opportunities aren't equal. If we really believed they were, we'd be glad to allow the sixteen local school districts in Franklin County be merged into one massive metropolitan district, governed by a single school board and led by a single administration. Of course, the loudest voice in that consolidation would be of the former Columbus City School community, which serves one out of three kids in the county, and 60% of all Franklin County children living below the poverty level. Think that might change the allocation of resources around town?

Funding is a perpetual source of conflict in regard to our current organization of public schools. The Columbus Dispatch recently ran this story suggesting that the inequalities in commercial funding bases around the state be resolved by dumping all commercial property taxes into a common State pool, and redistributing it by some formula meant to level the playing field. After all, it is the lack of local commercial revenue sources which make the rural schools poor, right?

I guess the folks at the Dispatch don't understand that Ohio's school funding systems have long done exactly this, by making State funding inversely proportional to local property values, as seen in this chart (yellow dot is Hilliard):
click to enlarge
You might reasonably conclude that I'm about to propose the elimination of local school districts in favor of larger - massive - school districts, organized at the county if not state or federal level.

But I'm not. My belief is that we should disassociate school systems from geography altogether, and I first wrote about it over five years ago, in a piece titled "Food Stamps."

Some would call this a "100% voucher system," or perhaps even a "100% charter school system." Unfortunately, both "voucher" and "charter school" have become pejorative terms, evoking all kinds of emotion and preventing rational discussion.

Instead, I would say simply that I'm looking for a mechanism by which we can achieve both the national goal of making a basic education (which is a moving target) available for all our children, and bring the forces of a competitive market to bear in terms of consumer choices as to where to send their kids to school, without regard to one's address.


  1. An interesting take from my favorite 1/32 American Indian Harvard Law Professor...

    I wonder if you swapped all students from two very different districts, say an affluent suburban district and an urban city district, and then compared how each group of "transplanted" students performed after a period of time. My gut says that students would perform relatively the same as they did in their previous district regardless of either the extra or limited programs offered by each district.

    In my opinion, the outcome of a child's education in general is most influenced by the parent's involvement and not as much by the district's spending or the house/area that you live in.

    I would bet on a kid from a poor family who values education vs. a kid from a "rich" family who do not anyday. The road can obviously be alot tougher in urban districts but it can be done - you just first have to have the desire.

    1. I don't disagree.

      And so this notion of disassociating the choice of school from the choice of address allows parents to seek the supplier of education services who offers what they are looking for in terms of curriculum, faculty, facilities, location, and cost.

      It's exactly the choice parents and student make when they're picking a college. Why can't it apply to K-12 levels as well?

  2. Interesting, provocative post. Thought you were going to be in favor of massive districts, which would be folly (the administrative savings would be tiny in the big scheme of things). I totally agree that we need to get competition into school districts with a voucher program.

    1. I think a free market for K-12 education, with appropriate tax-funded subsidy to ensure than every kid has access to a well-delivered basic education, will lead to both massive systems spanning many campuses and little boutique single-building schools which focus on the needs of a particular set of students.

      Again this is just like what we see at the college level, with both Ohio State at 60,000 students and Heidelberg at 1,500 having a place.

  3. It's hard for me to see the college system as worthy of emulation given skyrocketing costs -- some in the mainstream media are calling college the "new bubble" -- but at least it's much more market-driven than K-12.

    1. I absolutely agree that college costs are the next bubble we have to deal with, and it's been created by the same mechanism as the housing bubble - access to cheap credit.

      College costs are going to keep rising until students and parents say "Enough!"

      Easy to say after the fact of course. We spent a boatload of money paying for our kids' undergrad/graduate degrees, and we'd do it again in a heartbeat.

      That's the trouble with so much of this public policy stuff - what looks stupid in the abstract is often a different matter when applied to one's own situation....

  4. I believe that the disruption to property values would be enough to prevent this from ever happening. It's the revenge of the Tiebout model (

    1. Thanks for the comment - I hadn't heard of the Tiebout Model before. It strikes me as a little simplistic though, like when you start studying physics and the teacher tells you to ignore friction.

      By that I mean Tiebout assumes that households can move between taxing districts at no cost. We know this isn't true, and it's even more challenging when folks are dealing with a significant loss of market value (even though it probably means a dwelling in a more desirable district costs less now than before as well).

      One wonders if this creates a pent-up demand of folks who want to move out, but are waiting for a more opportune time. Maybe this is what you're saying - that while waiting, even those who might be planning to move out will support whatever actions they feel are necessary (e.g. passage of a new levy) to preserve property values.

      I tend to agree with that...

    2. What I'm saying is that the values of property in HCSD are dependent upon many variables. One, the quality of the schools, would change dramatically if the dollars followed the student. Because of this, property owners (and taxpayers) in districts like HCSD, would fight any proposal like yours.

      Tiebout's assumption about moving is strange, but I think it makes sense generally in the way that individuals will self-sort into like communities. That means that HCSD residents' expectations are great schools, city services, libraries, etc and are willing to pay a premium for it.

    3. Thanks for the clarification. In time, the real estate market would figure out how to price a parcel without the school factor. Of course, the issue with change is usually less about the viability of the proposed future state, but rather about the pain of the transition - in particular who is made a winner, and who a loser.

      I think Tiebout also fails to consider the conflict which sometimes exists between the legacy members of a community, and the more recent arrivals.

      I saw a dramatic example of that during the last levy campaign, when I was at a PTO meeting at one of the elementary schools, representing the school board. One of the speakers on behalf of the levy was a parent who has a high-paying professional career. One of her comments was that when she heard that HCSD was not the highest per-pupil spender in central Ohio, she wondered what her kids were missing out on that kids in other districts got to have.

      That perspective is based on the assumption that per-student spending is related only to the breadth of programming and services offered. That's one component, but it also depends on the average comp/benefits of the teachers, staff and administrators, and with a large fraction of our team at the top half of the salary grid, our average comp is also pretty high for the region (which is why we offered an early retirement incentive program).

      But having walked many neighborhoods in our community, I know that many of the senior citizens in the older neighborhoods are quite dismayed at how 'fancy' our district has become.

      Certainly they behaved according to Tiebout's theory when they picked Hilliard as a place to live 40-50 years ago. They haven't changed, they've just become a minority in a community populated by folks who want more, and have a tolerance for paying higher taxes to make it happen.

      I'm somewhere in the middle - a 30 year resident whose kids graduated in the last decade. I was okay with the tax rates we paid when we built a home here 30 years ago. And I am pleased at the educational experience my kids had as students here.

      But now as a retired person whose kids are long gone, the rising taxes are getting pretty uncomfortable. I've migrated to that side of the fence.

      This is why I think we may need to be open to talking about an earned income tax as a way to raise revenue down the road. It relieves those living on retirement income (like me!) from the burden of rising property taxes.

      But it also leaves local businesses out of new levies. Maybe that's okay, because it might help attract new businesses to locate here, and they would still contribute to school funding via property tax levies already in force (net of whatever TIFs they might be granted by the relevant city government).

  5. Interesting perspective on this by the folks over at the Fordham Institute.