Saturday, April 7, 2007

School Vouchers & Economic Segregation

I have watched my community be systematically harvested by residential developers and the politicians on their payroll, and a couple of years ago decided to do something about it. As a business executive, the first thing I wanted to understand was money flows -- where did money come from, and where was it going. It was only then that I understood the complex relationship between suburban development and school operations.

It comes down to this: the public school system has the authority to suck up money from the local taxpayers to build a school system which is has sufficient quality to attract more people to the community. That creates the demand for more houses, and the developers get rich. In fact, they get so rich that they spend a lot of money supporting the local politicians to make sure the developers are granted all the zoning and infrastructure support they need. Every anti-development politician in our community has been ridden out of town on a rail.

The trouble is that this is a Ponzi scheme. People build houses in our community because they love the schools, not knowing that their incremental tax contribution doesn't come close to paying the full cost of the demands they place on the school system. So the school board keeps coming back to the same taxpayers over and over to get more money to cover the funding shortage. Meanwhile the developers are getting richer all the time.

Having read and studied the proposed amendment language a couple of times, I'm quite sure that it will cost me more, and our school system will get less. The clue is one sentence in the amendment which says something like "no district will get more than it needs." I'm confident that it means districts like our will be capped, just as we are under the current budget.

If the stereotype is that right-wingers like big business and left-wingers like big government, then I’m as centrist as one can get. I think both are bad because all big entities seek self-preservation above all else, including their reason for existence.

My recommendation is to transform to a pure voucher system, where the money follows the kids. The vouchers are paid for by tax dollars, and every kid gets exactly the same dollar value assigned to their vouchers. Only accredited schools can turn in vouchers to the State for cash. To be an accredited school, the school must accept any student from Ohio, accept the voucher as 100% of tuition, and operate as a not-for-profit entity (ie no shareholders and no distribution of ‘profits’). The staff of the school must consist of licensed teachers, and the curriculum must meet the current state requirements. The kids must be able to pass whatever standardized testing is administered today. The State would have the responsibility of providing a transportation system which would take a kid from their home to any school within a reasonable distance at no cost.

I think we would end up with a combination of multi-building systems and individual boutique schools. Some would offer broad curricula and others would specialize. I envision the current school administrators running these schools (with some tune up of their business skills) under the supervision of a Board of Directors elected by the parents of the students who attend the schools.

I don’t understand why we give kids and parents a choice where to send their kids for post-secondary education, but not for primary and secondary education. Do we suddenly become better consumers of educational services when our kids graduate from high school? Why don’t we dictate where kids can go to college?

And finally, we have to recognize that public school systems in Ohio remain segregated, despite several decades of desegregation laws. But we do it in a more subtle and nefarious way than the days of explicit racial segregation. Our line today is: “anyone can attend our schools as long as you can afford to live in our neighborhood.” Consequently, the urban schools are poorer and less White than ever. Of the three largest districts in the state, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, the non-White population is 71%, 84% and 76% respectively. And they have among the largest per-pupil spending in the state. Blue Bexley did a beautiful analysis showing that there is no positive correlation between per-pupil spending and standardized test scores. Sending more money into these school systems won’t make the kids any less poor or the schools any less segregated. What we need to do is give those inner city kids a chance to attend the lily white suburban schools.

Sadly, as our own school district (Hilliard) has grown larger, the same kind of implicit segregation has crept into our community. While we are only a suburban district, our population is now over 75,000 and there are 15,000 kids in our schools. The affluent neighborhoods are in the northern part of the district and the multi-family and low-income housing is in the south. With 22 neighborhood school buildings, they are beginning to take on differing profiles that match the economic geography. With a third high school scheduled to come online in three years, our community is now engaged in a reassignment of neighborhoods to schools. Some, including me, want to use this opportunity to rebalance the demographics across the three buildings. Many, particularly those of the most affluent neighborhoods, want the attendance boundaries drawn simply on the basis of proximity. One person even got up and said that “those people” live in “those neighborhoods” because they want to! Like if a poor black family hit the Lotto they would say “hey, let’s stay here in the ghetto.”

If I wanted the state to spend more money on anything, it would be by creating affordable housing in the suburbs. I’m not talking about another generation of ‘The Projects’ but rather a community development policy which says that x% of any new housing development must be dedicated to affordable homes, interspersed through the whole development. Of course, this has zero chance of being implemented. Most of our suburban neighbors would gladly pay more and more taxes to make sure the poor blacks folks are kept in the ghettos where they belong. When we want to help the black folks, we’ll go to their community and work in the soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Then we’ll go back to our safe affluent neighborhoods, go into our big house with two cars in the garage, and set the alarm just in case we were followed.

We can’t keep feeding money into the same old system and expect it to get better. We need a new system. We need to let Americans – all Americans – do what they do best: Have a choice.

1 comment:

Barb said...

I've written the same thing --vouchers are the american way --to save the wanna-be-good students from failing schools.