Paul Kihn, a former school district official, understands schoolchildren and the limitations of schools and school districts, but not the limitations of the political process. He correctly argues that it is inappropriate and futile for public school districts to cling to their “monopoly” and the illusion that the district can best serve all children. Sadly, Mr. Kihn does not define the correct basis of the monopoly label – that with rare exceptions, public schools get all of the public funding – or that a real end to the monopoly would level the playing field between public and private schools. He does mention that magnet schools and chartered public schools should be independent of districts.
Mr. Kihn wants districts to specialize in certain types of schooling. He says districts should stop trying to centrally manage all school types for all students, stating that “districts should stop spending resources equally in the interest of ‘fairness,’ trying to provide all things to all schools.” I agree, but good luck with that. Kihn is saying that districts should continue to collect taxes from everyone, but announce that the district will not be a good choice for many children, and that some schools and children will enjoy a higher level of per pupil funding than others. Yes, it is true that the district cannot be everything to everyone, and that schools already receive unequal per pupil funding, but for district leaders and public school system supporters to admit that and accept it is utterly politically incorrect. That’s a key reason for the persistence of the current system’s problems. The political process forces more of the same harder. Among other things, the appearance of fairness is a political imperative. That’s why I believe that the same amount of public funding should support a child no matter which school he/she enrolls in; something that passes the appearance of fairness test better than the status quo.
Kihn – among others – seems to believe that public school choice will foster adequate specialization; that it can be achieved through central planning; that is, without the price system that guides specialization in most of the economy. Naturally, as an economist – a purveyor of price theory – I disagree. Central planning produces poor results because of severe information and incentive deficiencies.
That said, the emergence of Mr. Kihn’s epiphanies about the school system are encouraging. It can’t hurt to push specialization as far as the political process will permit, and maybe that process will create determination to address the limitations that arise.