Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Magical Thinking of School Choice

While busy implementing super-vouchers to further disrupt, defund and dismantle public education, Governor Kim Reynolds took a moment to tweet this:


Well, of course it's a zero sum game. Unless your state has an infinite supply of money, there's a limit to the number of taxpayer dollars you're going to spend on education, and any piece of that pile that you give to one sector of the education environment will absolutely be taken away from other slice.

But this piece of magical thinking has always been part of the modern school choice movement. "You don't have to settle for your one public school system," the sales pitch has gone. "You can have all these other different school systems as well-- and it won't cost you a penny more!!"

Sure. And when a business is running into financial trouble, a common tactic to make those dollars stretch is to acquire and open a bunch more sites. When a family is having trouble taking care of one house, a common tactic is to buy a second house and move part of the family into that house.

The notion that two, three, four, or more school systems can be operated at the same cost as one public system is a fairy tale, a delusion, a trip to the unicorn farm on the back of a dragon carried by break-dancing fairies. It's believing that daylight savings time makes the sun shine longer. 

Occasionally choicers try to pair that fairy tale with the fairy tale of The Public Schools That Waste Money Inefficiently, but you'd have to search far and wide to find a five hundred dollar hammer on school grounds; instead, you'll find teachers in a crumbling room wielding a third-hand stapler that they bought at a Salvation Army and reassembled with some duct tape at home. And at this stage of the game, The Tale Of The Magic Charter School That Did More With Less has been pretty much dropped in favor of The Tale Of The Charter School That Demanded A Larger Slice Of The Pie.

So the choice world hides the extra costs by getting wealthy benefactors to kick in, or hitting up parents for some extra money and/or unpaid labor. Some of the extra cost is simply passed on to taxpayers. That mechanism is admittedly complicated, as laid out by researcher Mark Weber here. Choice can actually raise per pupil spending in public schools, because fixed and stranded costs are spread over fewer remaining students, or because taxpayers put more money into the district to deal with those costs. And it's hard to figure in the "cost" of lost programming. 

It is the least surprising thing in the world to conclude that running multiple school systems costs more than running a single system. But somehow choice supporters can never quite bring themselves to make the honest pitch-- "We believe that every child should have a variety of options for education, and we believe in it so much that we are asking taxpayers to contribute more money so that the choice dream can become a reality." 

Why don't they pitch that hard reality? Because some great things could be accomplished in that reality. Well, free is always the most attractive cost for a program, and it's particularly attractive when many of the people who are driving the bus actually have the policy goal of shrinking public education spending to zero. And there are always those who sincerely believe in the magical idea that budget dollars are infinitely stretchy.  Who knows. Maybe if we close our eyes and wish real hard...

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