How Airline Apathy Explains the Need for School Choice

If you’ve ever been stranded at an airport — or gotten involved in a debate over school choice — you can certainly empathize with Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at AEI.

In a sarcastic and slightly cranky opinion piece, Hess details a bad stroke of luck with American Airlines that ultimately prevents him from delivering an important lecture despite trying every maneuver possible to rebook flights, book car rentals, and hightail it through an airport.

So I bolted off the plane, asking the ‘helpful’ lady guiding us to our transfer gates to please just let the gate know I was coming (she said she would). I didn’t make it. Well, by dashing up and down escalators and such, I actually made it there just in time, barely 10 minutes before departure—but the agent had already closed the door and was nowhere to be found. The idle American agent at the gate 20 feet over didn’t much care, even though an impartial third party might’ve thought I merited at least a modicum of consideration—given that I’d spent a big chunk of my day trying to juggle air reservations and rental car plans to accommodate American’s struggles.”

This kind of experience, unfortunately, isn’t all that rare. Travelers get the raw end of the deal at the mercy of airlines all of the time – even though they are paying for their airline ticket and trusting said airline with delivering them in a safe and timely manner.

So why is Hess’ experience important?

Because he makes an analogy that is an excellent window into the experience of many parents when it comes to their children being stranded in a school system that drops the ball time and time again. Only with education, the stakes are much, much higher, as Hess notes.

I’m annoyed today less because my flights were goofed up (which happens), and more because no one who works for the airline seems especially interested in doing anything about it. I would feel infinitely more chipper if I felt like someone really wanted to help ensure that the problem got solved. Instead, I’m staring at the face of a big, bureaucratic morass, a face which displays a remarkable lack of passion for doing the job well.

This happens time and again when it comes to big bureaucracies. Nobody seems all that concerned about helping out, preferring instead to spout lots of stuff about policy and procedure. We can never get hold of anyone who really seems to be in charge, and it can feel like the whole process is devoid of accountability or genuine human concern.

This frustration is at the heart of the school choice debate.

The bureaucracy of public education has been attacked and debated for years. There’s no changing that. And with bureaucracies of all kinds being laden with deficiencies, it’s not a surprise that education is also a victim.

As Ronald Reagan so aptly noted,

Every once in a while, somebody has to get the bureaucracy by the neck and shake it loose and say ‘stop what you’re doing.’

But it’s important that we not throw our hands up and end on a pessimistic, fatalistic view of education. The variable that Hess highlights is crucial to understanding the motive of school choice advocates – and the ability to improve Big Education by employing educators who work with passion and purpose. It’s not a question of for-profit motives, it’s about finding “smaller, more human-sized” school systems:

Hess is a physical traveler just as all parents navigate schools in the hopes of providing the best education possible to their children. If he had been given some semblance of genuine effort to help him reach his destination, Hess could have made his flight. Or even if he didn’t, he could have walked away knowing the best attempt was made by American Airlines to uphold their end of the deal.

That’s not asking too much, is it?

Likewise for parents, school children ought to be given every opportunity to receive the best education, not just the one they are stuck in because that’s where Mom or Dad pays rent or their mortgage. When kids are not afforded that opportunity because the bureaucratic mess of Big Education gets in the way and their education fails them, Mom and Dad become cranky too. Or downright angry, and justifiably so. Because we all know how important education is for setting a child up to pursue happiness and success.

What we all want, I think, in an airline—and a hundred times more in a school—is that professionals exhibit a passion for doing their job well. For figuring out smart ways to solve problems. For execution.

As for the children who’ve had the benefit of school choice, but still fail? Well at least they had access to their best shot. Just as flights will be missed, children will fail. There are countless reasons why. But having the confidence that every effort was made on his or her behalf is a whole lot more palatable than watching employee after employee halfheartedly clock in and out with no desire to help you reach your final destination.

Scholarships to Encourage Kids to Attend School in Low-Income Neighborhoods?

Here’s a thought. Instead of busing underprivileged kids to wealthy suburbs, how about sending kids from wealthy households to private schools in low-income neighborhoods?

Some might say, “No way, I’m not sending my kid into a dangerous neighborhood just to attend a private school.” But what if a scholarship program could gentrify neighborhoods by encouraging parents to move to or stay in lower-income areas and send their kids to nearby private schools?

Residence as a determinant of school district has been a factor in the middle-class movement out of urban areas. Urban schools have declined in quality as a result of urban flight, and the surrounding neighborhoods have become blighted as the schools become increasingly dysfunctional. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Community Protection and Revitalization (CPR) scholarships aims to help decrease concentrated poverty, crime, and unemployment in communities that are threatened by urban flight. In a new brief, Bartley R. Danielsen identifies how more multifaceted reforms can not only improve educational outcomes for students but also increase opportunity on a larger scale for more Americans.

Many observe these problems and incorrectly attribute the plight of urban districts to bad school-district leadership. Bad leadership is not the primary cause of urban schools’ problems. If leadership could solve this problem, some urban district would have already solved it. Further, it is not reasonable to believe that all urban districts always have bad leadership. Instead, the plight of urban districts is a natural equilibrium condition that results when school assignments are based on residence.

Danielsen, an associate professor of finance and real estate at North Carolina State University, notes that historically, methods of addressing poverty in the education system have included moving kids — and often their entire family — out of poor neighborhoods through section 8 housing vouchers, and more recently, school choice vouchers.

These vouchers are often assigned by lottery or means-testing, but that method does nothing to actually fix the community that is being abandoned. The peripheral effect doesn’t just cause repercussions to the neighborhood left behind, but to wealthier communities that see rents and regulations go up in response to voucher families moving in.

An interesting argument Danielson makes is that a lot of areas that could benefit from these scholarships may be lower income, but that doesn’t mean they are bad places. Many families already live there, but decide to move when their kids are school age because they want them to attend a better quality public school. But dropping parochial or private schools into these areas and offering scholarships would keep those families in place.

Danielsen’s design for a CPR scholarship is aimed at not only keeping public money in the areas where it does the most good, but indirectly benefiting communities by attracting businesses that wish to be near quality schools. In other words, the scholarship not only is to ensure a good education, but to ensure resources are assigned to poorer neighborhoods.

You can read his proposal, but do you think that putting good schools in struggling neighborhoods and paying families to send their kids there could work to revitalize those neighborhoods?

School Choice Laws and the Parents They Ignore

At least 45 states and the District of Columbia have enacted 102 school choice laws, but those laws barely regard the role of parental rights and responsibilities, according to a new study of education statutes.

In all, the states and nation’s capital have 43 charter school laws, 25 voucher laws, 20 tax-credit laws, 9 tax-deduction laws, and 5 Education Savings Account (ESA) laws on the books, and many of these laws have been beneficial in helping students get out from under the yoke of ineffective education systems.

Nonetheless, says Gerard Robinson, a former commissioner of education for Florida and secretary of education for Virginia, the school choice laws really only pay lip service when it comes to the parents’ rights and responsibilities in their children’s education.

After analyzing results from 20 choice laws in particular, and reviewing 82 other choice laws in general, my research found that regrettably, existing choice laws demonstrate that parental rights and responsibilities in education statutes are little more than a dull roar. More often than not, when ‘parent’ is mentioned in a school choice law, it is about the legal structure of the program or is a brief hat tip toward parents — rather than language that empowers them when it comes to the education of their child.

The reason to involve parents in a child’s education is not just theoretical. Existing research has shown that parent involvement can boost the academic outcomes of students.”

This is not to say that parents are ignored in the laws. Robinson notes that parents are mentioned quite a bit, but mainly in the context of the authority to opt their children in or out of traditional schooling as well as in the funding of Education Savings Accounts.

Those mentions don’t really address the rights and responsibilities of parents in their children’s education, and to hear it told by mass media, students are better off if their parents don’t get involved. Googling “parental expectations” brings up an array of stories about the damage parental expectations can wreak on children’s performance and grades.

But really, that is a lot of hype.

Several studies show that not only do children assimilate better when they have behavioral norms placed on them by parents — punishment for bad behavior and reward for good — but involved parenting actually raises students’ performance in school by as much as four-tenths of a grade point across student age groups.

Several studies have shown how technology can play a role in enabling parents to participate in their children’s education, with a positive outcome. Programs already in existence in some areas include daily text updates to parents or portals for parents to review their kids’ assignments and their progress on curricula.

But the rights and responsibilities question goes beyond merely helping one’s child do his or her homework or keeping an eye on them while they’re out of sight. If parents are to be involved in raising their own children, why would they leave it to the state to determine what level of involvement they should have?

By insisting on greater rights and responsibilities in the educational system, Robinson contends and the evidence supports, schools are better equipped to teach, and parents are one step closer to improving their children’s outcomes.

Read Gerard Robinson’s survey on school choice laws and the acknowledgement of parents’ rights and responsibilities.