Challenge to DC Public Schools: Compete or Die!


As students continue to flee Washington, DC's regular public schools for charter schools, the system is having to shut down underused school buildings. Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher offers this telling anecdote that explains much of the failure of DC's public schools:

Three years into Washington's experiment with charter schools, after they had sucked away 15 percent of the students from regular public schools, I asked then-Superintendent Paul Vance what he had changed to compete with the charters.

His one-word answer: "Nothing."

My wife (whose mother was a public school teacher and a professor of education) looked over at me during breakfast and said something like: "See that's what I'm afraid of–charter schools and vouchers will drain the public schools of the best students and money, leaving the remaining students in worse and worse public schools." (Ah, the sheer joy of discussing public policy over blueberries and cream in the morning.)

In any case, her assumption seems to be that the public schools will simply let themselves die. The idea and the hope is that by injecting competition (vouchers, charter schools, and so forth) into education that that will force public schools to improve. But it may be that some public school bureaucracies are so ossified and some teachers' unions so reactionary that they would rather die than change. My wife is right to worry that the kids who remain in the public schools will get hurt by the death throes of their dying systems. But the solution is not to maintain failing public schools on life support.

In an excellent recent article, Reason Foundation education policy director Lisa Snell showed how public school systems can dramatically improve by assigning funds to each student and then force schools to compete for students who can choose which schools they want to attend. The DC public school system, which already spends over $16,000 per pupil (one of the highest levels in the nation) could save itself by embracing such competition. Or, if it will not, for the sake of the students, it should just hurry up and die, clearing the way for a new generation of competitive educators to take over.