Last month, when Los Angeles voted for a major experiment in outsourcing the management of public schools, it was sold under the banner of parental empowerment and school choice. Unfortunately, outsourcing public school management has never worked as a strategy for school reform, and LA’s experiment is already showing why. The first draft of the rules for the policy, just released earlier this month, make it clear that school choice — which is the only real form of parental empowerment — was never part of the plan in L.A.
The Los Angeles Board of Education voted 6-1 on Aug. 25 to put the management of up to 250 public schools out for bid to non-profit organizations. School reformers rightly touted the move as an open admission that the government monopoly status quo is a failure, and as yet another sign of the increasing turn against the teacher unions on the political left.
Earlier that day, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, stood outside the school district’s offices and told 2,000 charter school parents and other supporters that “we’re here today to stand up for our children.” Standing under a banner reading “Parent Revolution,” the name of an organization backed by charter organizers, he said: “I am pro-union but I am pro-parent as well. If workers have rights, then parents ought to have rights too.”
For good measure, he added: “This school board understands that parents are going to have a voice.”
So somehow, people got the crazy idea from all this that the reform in question involved school choice and empowering parents. “We are here to support parents’ ability to make choices,” said one parent attending the rally.
That parent got the wrong idea. The policy before the school board that day had nothing to do with school choice. It only said that contracts to manage schools could be bid out to non-profits. And bidding out the management of public schools without changing the underlying dynamic of the system has always proven to be a recipe for failure in the past.
Improving public schools by bidding out the management contract is like trying to improve a baseball team with an incompetent owner by changing the team manager. As long as you have the wrong guy in the head office, you won’t get real change because no matter how good the management is, it always has to answer to the dunce at the top. To turn the team around, you need a change of ownership, not a change of management.
The same goes for schools. Right now, the government monopoly owns all public schools. Nothing major will change until we get new owners — namely parents, via school choice.
Under the recently released first draft of the rules in L.A., bidding would be open to any public non-profit organization with the financial resources and educational skills to run a school. In practice, that mainly leaves two main potential sets of candidates: charter school operators and the city’s teacher union.
It would be amusing to see the unions and the charter school operators go head to head and see who can run a better school. Similar experiments have produced enlightening results in the past. Boston, for example, has both charter schools and another kind of school called a “pilot school,” which is similar in most respects. The main difference is that pilot school teachers are unionized and charter school teachers aren’t. The result? Charter schools beat pilot schools hands down.
But the biggest thing to notice in the draft rules is that the schools under contracted management will be required to enroll any students from their traditional attendance boundaries who want to attend. In plain English, that means the schools whose management is being bid out will not be schools of choice.
Why? Because parents won’t have a right to choose a school, and schools won’t have a right to offer parents much choice even if they want to. Schools will have to reserve almost all of their seats to satisfy the guaranteed-enrollment requirement for students in their attendance zones.
The same nasty little trick is used in many states to create a bogus policy of “public school choice” so that unions can respond to voucher and charter school proposals by saying “hey, we already have school choice.” But just try to actually exercise the ability to choose a school and you’ll find out there are no open slots anywhere.
Here in Wisconsin, where I live, we theoretically have statewide open enrollment. I can enroll my daughter in any school in the whole state — in theory. In practice, the system has an effective veto over parent choices. The result is that fewer than 1% of all students in the state attend school outside their home districts.
And as long as parents don’t have the right to choose their schools, nothing important changes. The government monopoly keeps its ultimate control over everything that happens. No doubt the charter school companies in L.A. mean well. No doubt they will do their best to manage the schools better than they were managed before, and in most cases they will probably make marginal improvements over the status quo. But that’s not saying much.
The only real hope for real change is real choice. School vouchers have consistently improved public school performance. That’s because they change the underlying power structure and put parents in charge.