February 15, 2006

Make Unofficial School Choice Into the Real Thing

Carroll Andrew Morse

I stand behind my original solution to the problem posed by Providence residents like Maria Hernandez who send their children to school in Cranston. Instead of focusing on action against Ms. Hernandez, Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey should take the battle directly to the real source of the problem -- the Providence school system. Mayor Laffey should find a case involving a Providence resident currently attending school in Cranston and send Providence a bill for $4,000 -- the approximate amount of state-aid per-student in Rhode Island -- to cover the partial cost of that student.

The deal will be that Cranston will keep the student if Providence is willing to spend its state education aid in Cranston to help a Providence resident. If Providence is unwilling to help its own in this way, then the student will be returned to the Providence school system; then let Providence make the argument that children should be forced to go to bad schools even when other options are available.

Yes, I know that $4,000 doesn't cover the full cost of educating a student in Cranston, so this ad-hoc arrangement may not be sustainable indefintiely into the future. To make sure that proper precedents are set, Cranston would announce that this is a one-year deal only unless Rhode Island lays the foundation for a statewide school choice program by the beginning of the next school year.

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Milton Friedman cites a $6900 spending figure per student as the national average. Thus, Rhode Island school systems would appear to be just a little bloated. There is no correlation between amounts spent per pupil and educational quality. The per-pupil amounts nationwide have more-than-doubled in real terms over the last thirty years, which has been accompanied by appreciable declines in student performance.

We beat all other advanced nations when it comes to education/training quality post 12th-grade. Yet we are in the bottom 10% from grades 4-12. Why? Simple - the impact of competition from non-public institutions is far greater at the college level and is clearly the dominant factor post-college. As Reagan would aver - Government is the problem here. Specifically, it is its lording over the educational system when decisions should be made by the parents, teachers, and local school officials.

Just like renewable energy, the polls show over-and-over that the American public (particularly minorities) want school choice. The public gets it - so why don't the politicians?? If you guessed entrenched special interest lobbying, go to the head of the class.

The current monopolized educational establishment represents special interests at their most pernicious in this country - right up there with sugar, ethanol, and corporate farmers, to name a few. A lot of citizens are willing to give them a pass on this, though, because of the emotional connection among parents, children, and teachers.

This potential Cranston-Providence imbroglio will serve to highlight the abject unfairness of the current monopoly. Upper-middle-class and rich kids have always had choice because of their parents' resources. Most kids don't. This kid clearly did not, so the mother was willing to commit a felony to, in effect, provide herself with an underground voucher.

And just like a real voucher would, this illegal "undergound" voucher system will shake up the current Providence establishment. All that was needed was someone courageous enough (Laffey) to bring it to light despite the potential for political fall-out.

And if this one situation brings about reform in Providence, which it very will may, then think what a real, legal voucher system would do!!

Posted by: bountyhunter at February 15, 2006 10:16 AM

Mr Carroll, I don't think you understand what Mr. Laffey just did. He just started the discusion on "school choice" in Rhode Island.

Calling a press conference on school choice might have made that ragsheet the cranston herald but Laffey did the right thing and got it on the front page of the Providence Journal!

Watch how this develops and think "crossing guards".

Laffey is a heavyweight, the heavyweight in Rhode Island and he has thought this through. He is way ahead of everyone.

Posted by: Winterbird at February 15, 2006 4:56 PM


You get it. More and more people will get it too.

J Mahn

Posted by: Joe Mahn at February 15, 2006 5:17 PM

I actually agree with a lot of what you've stated. However, I would suggest sending Providence the bill for the full amount of the tuition, not just part of it. Given the number of students who would prefer an education elsewhere than Providence, it would not be economically sustainable for Cranston or other cities to pick up the tab, even if for only part of it, since local property taxes are the primary mechanism for funding schools.

If Providence students are fleeing to Cranston, there is obviously a good reason (they come here to East Providence, too). If Providence can't fix it's own system, it should be willing to help those who don't want to be a part of it. I totally agree that the funds should follow the student, so if Providence can't provide a meaningful education to them, let them take their money elsewhere.

I do agree that once again, Mayor Laffey is the catalyst for change. Good for him (and us).

Posted by: WIll at February 15, 2006 5:55 PM

No, Winterbird, Andrew "started the discusion on 'school choice' in Rhode Island." Laffey made no mention of it. Instead, he said the arrest of the student's mother (in the paraphrase of the Providence Journal) "heralded a crackdown on parents who deceive the School Department to enroll their nonresident children." On the radio, he jibed that Cranston's schools are better, but unless I've missed it, he hasn't so much as feinted toward any kind of "school choice" statement. (He hasn't even suggested, I don't think, that Ms. Hernandez could have managed school choice the old-fashioned way: moving to Cranston.)

There's something of the flavor of idolatry among Laffey supporters — that anything questionable that the mayor might do must really be part of a far-sighted plan. That may be, I guess. But based on the evidence so far in this instance, it would be a bit of a stretch to take others' ideas of what Laffey should have done and claim, based on faith, that it is in reality what he has done — just too slyly for the rest of us to catch.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 15, 2006 10:28 PM

Justin -

Let me ask you something: What are we talking about right now? "School choice" you say - correct answer! Now, Justin, just why are we talking about school choice? Well - could it possibly be that we are discussing it right here and right now precisely because of the Hernandez episode. Don't you think that is what Winterbird meant when he referred to Laffey's starting the discussion. Could it possibly be that Winterbird was using a common figurative expression that you opted to take literally in order to get a few choice digs at Laffey, as you are wont to do.

Something Laffey did set off a chain of events that directly leads to this current discussion of choice. So who gets "official" credit - Laffey or Morse? Who cares. That is sandbox stuff.

What matters now is that the issue is front and center among Rhode Islanders. I would think that would be something for you to be joyful about, yet you seem to let your issues with Laffey get in the way.

Posted by: bountyhunter at February 15, 2006 11:05 PM


"There's something of the flavor of idolatry among Laffey supporters that anything questionable that the mayor might do must really be part of a far-sighted plan."

There's a very good reason for that -- because it usually is. He's not nearly as spontaneous as some might like to believe. I wouldn't characterize it as idolatry; merely recognition of a known personal characteristic.

Laffey is a planner. He sets personal goals; he then works hard to acheive the goal. He accomplishes the goal. He then sets a new goal, and so on. I wouldn't be surprised if he's already planning for the 2018 Presidential election.

Posted by: Will at February 16, 2006 1:15 AM

As Reagan (whom I admittedly do idolize) once said, "There's no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."

Posted by: Will at February 16, 2006 1:20 AM

Im not looking for any credit. Will, Ronald Reagan, and I agree on this issue.

But I also agree with Justin. If this is a step towards making school choice a reality, that message is not breaking through into the MSM, the place where most people will be getting their information.

Posted by: Andrew at February 16, 2006 8:34 AM

I hope Mayor Laffey isn't planning to run in the 2018 presidential election, because it will mean that he is running for President in another country. The U.S. will hold presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, but not in 2018.

Posted by: AuH2ORepublican at February 16, 2006 2:47 PM

Give me a break, bountyhunter. Winterbird (ugh... can we go back to TV names?) claimed that Andrew doesn't "understand what Mr. Laffey just did." Giving Mayor Laffey credit for a discussion of school choice is like giving the prosecutor in a death penalty case credit for starting a discussion of capital punishment.

And it isn't "sandbox stuff" (in your condescendingly dismissive phrase) when the politicians' supporters are doing their best to give him credit for taking every desirable position.


I'm disappointed, Will, to see you siding with the zealots on this. Perhaps it would be something more than blind faith in the greatness of the Laffey if he had offered any indication that he thought there ought to be a legal way for Providence students to attend Cranston schools.

Mayor Laffey is courageous and useful in that he addresses obvious problems and corruption. But that we're discussing, on this blog, a topic that we're predisposed to discuss (and have before) is not evidence that he is the Tried and True Conservative Dream.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 16, 2006 7:27 PM

Please forgive me, you are absolutely 100% correct. The U.S. Presidential elections are in 2012, 2016, and 2020. I've always been a little shaky in math. I did attend public schools K-12 afterall! I'm surprised I can type this!

Senate term #1 is 2006 to 2012. Term #2 is 2012 to 2018. So, to run in 2016, he would have to cut that second term short. Sounds like something Hillary would try, so that's no good. With both Senate terms ending in 2018, it gives him a few years to get the Presidential campaign growing strong anyway. I like the sound of "2020" anyway ... has that whole "vision" thing to it!

PS I wouldn't so much call it siding with the zealots. Zealots can be (and often are) right, though I'm not always a huge fan of the tactics employed. I don't want to come off as overly conspiratorial either.
However, I have observed (repeatedly) that with Laffey, there is often an underlying "greater" motivation with many of his public initiatives, which once understood in "20/20" hindsight, tend to point towards a more wide-reaching plan. Those "crossing guards" come to mind.

PPS I do agree that Laffey could do a better job at getting more the usual 10 second snippet in the MSM. I suppose that's what commericials and those "policy briefs" on his website are for. Unfortunately, TV doesn't lend itself to great policy discussions or very deep thought.

Posted by: Will at February 18, 2006 4:43 AM


Please show me where, on Laffey's Web site, he makes a case for school choice. It's one thing to note that a candidate can't get his (quote, unquote) "real" message into MSM coverage — in the paper, on television, and on the radio — of an issue. It's quite another to ascribe a position to a candidate who doesn't mention it anywhere.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 18, 2006 7:31 AM