Years ago, during a debate with a public school superintendent over the issue of educational choice, I suggested that we shut down the public schools in their entirety. Then we could "buy" education the way we buy other crucial things. We don't expect government to build our houses (think housing projects) or our cars (think Yugo), so why our schools?
It was a thought experiment, meant to stir up discussion. Most of the audience then—like readers today—find this idea to be insane. Rather than debate the merits of a radical concept, I wanted to use today's column to point out the absurdity of the current way we purchase education for the young, with a recent Anaheim dispute serving as a case in point.
Anaheim Elementary School Board trustees voted in late July to allow parents to convert the ill-performing Palm Lane Elementary School into a charter school. School officials have spent more than $800,000 in taxpayer money and two years battling mostly low-income parents over their effort to become the first Orange County school to use the so-called "parent trigger" law. The district had little choice but to relent after a recent comeuppance from the courts.
The law, officially known as the Parent Empowerment Act, "creates a process which allows parents of students in low-performing schools to sign a petition to implement one of the intervention models," according to the California Department of Education. Those models include replacing staff, turning the school into a charter, adding new programs or closing it down.
In 2014, the Anaheim superintendent sent letters to parents noting that the school "failed to meet the English-language arts and mathematics proficiency targets." Many parents already knew that Palm Lane was failing the kids, so they decided to pull the proverbial trigger. School officials in general tend to dislike accountability laws and charters, so it wasn't surprising that, instead of helping the parents, Anaheim officials fought them.
Those who want to see how poorly the district treated the parents need only read the California appeals court's decision from late April. As the ruling detailed, former state Sen. Gloria Romero, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored the trigger law and was assisting Anaheim parents, complained to the district that anonymous people identifying themselves as district employees had been calling petition signers and telling them that their names don't "match" school records.
"Even if you are personally opposed to enforcement of the parent trigger law, I am sure you do not wish for these parents and their children to suffer unnecessarily," Romero wrote, according to the court. "Obviously, your callers should stop making statements that sound like the parents are accused of wrongdoing, and the callers should identify themselves."
Romero suggested the district work with the petitioners to verify the signatures. But the district rejected the petition. It claimed that there weren't enough valid signatures, denied that Palm Lane was subject to the Parent Empowerment Act, and argued that petitioners lacked a required document and a specific description. This should disabuse anyone of the idea that parents and students are in any way "customers" in the current public school monopoly.
Fortunately, the trial court rejected the district, and the appeals court rebuked it on every major point. Now the parents have 90 days to decide how they want the school to operate. It's a great victory, of course, but their kids have had to endure a poorly performing school for two more years as their parents, already busy earning a living, had to mount a political and legal campaign. The parents now have to learn how to create (or hire) a quality school.
Let's put that scenario in the context of a grocery purchase. Nothing's more important to people's lives than food, right? We want everyone to have access to healthy food. So the government creates a tax-funded grocery store in each neighborhood designed to serve all the people living within certain artificially created district boundaries.
This is so important that you might move to a neighborhood just because you like the food choices there. But let's say you're not wealthy and you're stuck in a neighborhood with a store that offers few produce choices, bad service and rotten meats. In a competitive system, of course, you would buy your groceries elsewhere. In this one, you have no choice but to go to the Surly Mart.
Under an admirable new law, you could, of course, spend the next two years organizing your neighbors and fighting in court to force changes at the store—over the well-funded recalcitrance of the current management. If you succeed, you get to spend time figuring out how to design and manage a grocery store operation. Lucky you.
Yet, our similarly designed public school system is supposedly more sensible than letting school operators succeed or fail based on their ability to meet the needs of customers. Which system really is crazy?
This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.