Too Much of a Good Thing

America is all about unfettered choice and free markets. Consumers daily face a tsunami of choices everywhere they turn.

At some point, however, we may want to ask ourselves if it is possible to have too much choice.

Can we have too much of a good thing?

Virtually everyone in the U.S. has heard the tales of woe among small-town American retailers when a Wal-Mart opens nearby. Their sales plummet as once faithful customers find they cannot resist the low prices offered by the world’s largest retailer.

Now, in many of these communities, the other shoe has dropped. Their retailers left the local market to Wal-Mart because they couldn’t compete. Now Wal-Mart finds many of these locations fail to produce sufficient profit. So earlier this month Wal-Mart announced the closing of 154 locations across the country.

Many of these communities are now left without the grocery stores, hardware and dry goods stores they need to survive.

Public Schools and Choice

How, you may ask, does market competition in a consumer economy affect public education?

Our prevailing political majority in the mid 1990s busted up the public school monopoly by introducing charter schools and schools of choice, fueled by a funding formula in which all operating revenues follow the student.

Since then, we’ve lifted all caps on the number of charter schools that can be opened, created virtual charter schools that spend lavishly to recruit students statewide and, for a short time, made schools of choice a “best practice” that all but demanded the participation of all schools.

So how can that be bad? The political narrative is that parents have left a “bad” district to find a better option for their children. They have every right to do so, and they are working to do the absolute best thing for their children. Who can fault them for that?

♥Unintended Consequences

Nobody can fault individual parents for doing what is best for their children. Nor can anyone deny that charter schools are here to stay. Expanding choice is a part of our DNA. They are, in many ways, much like Wal-Mart.

Charters, for the most part, are less expensive to operate. In most instances and with relatively few exceptions, they offer a similar product. Research shows most achieve similar educational outcomes for students.

But, like the arrival of a new Wal-Mart, there are unintended consequences.

When schools lose students, they lose revenue. But they lose something else as well. They lose parents and guardians who have high expectations for their children. Each child who leaves a school district is removed by parents who chose to shop for another option instead of staying to make their community and their schools better.

Neighborhood schools and parents who are involved in their children’s education, and families who have pride in their schools and their community are the building blocks of a strong community.

These parents are like the grocery stores, the hardware stores, the drygoods stores and other retailers who left towns and villages when Wal-Mart moved in. These stores were most often owned by local leaders who were invested in their community, whose sole purpose was to build a better community that would, in turn, create a stronger customer base for their investment.

The school systems in Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Pontiac, Inkster, Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Benton Harbor and many other communities across Michigan look a lot like the communities that have lost both their local bedrock retailers and their Wal-Mart. They’re struggling. They don’t have the physical, human or financial resources to rebuild.

Detroit Public Schools built up the vast majority of its debt while under the control of a state-appointed board or an emergency financial manager. With all dollars following the students who leave a district, there is no way to achieve financial stability without a stable student population. Detroit has lost 100,000 students since 2000.

As I’ve written before, with state per-pupil funding that fails to match increases in the cost of living, the only schools that can maintain programming are those that are growing. Schools that lose large numbers of students are forced to cut budgets year after year. It’s a death spiral.

Do the Math

When a district loses 30 students, it’s a loss of about $220,000. If the 30 students were all third-graders scheduled to attend Mr. Miller’s class in Elmwood Elementary, the decision would be easy. Mr. Miller would be reassigned or he’d be looking for work and everything else would go on as scheduled.

Unfortunately, students don’t leave in single classroom groups. They leave at all grade levels and from all of the buildings within a district, so there may be one or two fewer students in a class or maybe 10 fewer in a building. That doesn’t change the operating costs for the next year, because the 29 remaining students still need Mr. Miller to teach third grade, and so on in every other class that lost a student. So, for the district, next year’s operating costs are pretty much the same as the year before except it has $220,000 fewer dollars than in the previous year to provide the same level of service.

Urban districts that cut year after year end up with neighborhood schools throughout their city that are at one half or less their original student capacity. It’s an inefficient way to operate, but closing a school is a difficult choice. If you close, and you anger the people in the neighborhood, it is possible they’ll choose to go to another school rather than take the bus to another building in your district. If the end result of closing a school is losing more students, you’ve lost the efficiency envisioned in merging two buildings into one.

If we have any hope of saving our urban districts, or if we dream of building the metropolitan magnets for young talent that are currently attracting our state’s new college graduates — cities like Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco — we must find a way to stabilize the student population in our urban schools. We must give those schools a chance to rebuild and retain the young professionals who flee to the suburbs when their children near school age.

As it is in many cities, everyone who could leave the urban district has gone. The students and families who are left are those who have no way out. They’re the most impoverished, the ones with the greatest needs, and they’re trapped in a district drained of human and financial resources.

We’ve gorged ourselves on choice and we’re suffering the consequences. It’s too much of a good thing. We may have to close the old system and build new, but we must address our addiction to choice if our new schools are to fare better than the ones they replaced.

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