Crisis vs. Competition in Education

Here are two views on school choice, the idea that fostering a variety of schooling options for families—whether public, charter, cyber or private—is a good thing:

  1. School choice is a waste of taxpayer dollars when we already have a “funding crisis” for public schools, to quote the head of the state’s largest teacher union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, this week. “Gov. Tom Corbett’s unprecedented $860 million in public school funding cuts is getting worse and forcing districts to cut more essential programs,” the PSEA warned.
  2. School choice creates competition in our education system between public schools, charter and cyber schools and private schools-which makes the public schools improve.

So which view is true? New evidence from one of Pennsylvania’s most expensive school districts—Pittsburgh—shows competition from charter schools forced its public schools to trim $40 million in wasteful spending, cut more than 200 office positions, furlough teachers and other staff, and announce nearly 400 teachers would not return in 2012-13. That might sound like an “education crisis” to the PSEA.  But that’s not how the school district views it.

The Education Action Group reports:

Normally, when a school district announces mass layoffs, it is followed by charges that lawmakers are not “investing” enough in public education and that the apocalypse is at hand.

Instead, Pittsburgh school officials admit the district had gotten flabby and careless with its spending, leading to, in the words of Superintendent Linda Lane, “a relatively expensive infrastructure and way of conducting business.”

Pittsburgh spends more than $20,000 per student every year, far above the $14,000 per student Pennsylvania average, in part because the districts’ enrollment is half what it once was, but staff and building reductions have not kept pace. 

The “increasing array of other educational options (e.g., charter schools, cyber charter schools, and potentially vouchers) did help to move the needle in terms of our culture shift,” said Lisa Fischetti, chief of staff and external affairs for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Wasteful spending isn’t just limited to Pittsburgh: Across the state, districts have added 36,000 staff while enrollment has declined by roughly the same amount. Pennsylvania does have an education crisis, but it’s not the one the PSEA trumpets: It’s that throwing money at a failing public school system has not produced better results.

Competition isn’t the enemy here—it’s the cure.