November 18, 2005

Cranston’s and Rhode Island’s Need for a Sensible School Choice Program

Carroll Andrew Morse

A Daniel Barbarisi article in yesterday’s Projo reported that Cranston has “expelled more than 100 students since September in a campaign to purge the system of illegally enrolled children from other communities”. The City of Cranston is taking the wrong approach. Instead of an enforcement campaign, Cranston should be celebrating its ability to provide a quality of education that residents of other Rhode Island cities and towns want. Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, the Cranston City Council, and the Cranston School Committee should be using the fact that students from other cities and towns want to attend their schools as an opportunity to press for a more sensible and fair program of state education aid.

Instead of Cranston sending time and money on efforts to send students back to Providence and other communities, the state should be sending money to Cranston to help them educate students who have freely chosen to go there. Rhode Island should adopt a public school choice program like the one in neighboring Massachusetts: students are allowed to choose amongst the public school systems that opt-in to the program, and state aid follows the number of students who choose to attend a particular school.

According to the budget, about $650,000,000 of state money went to cities towns in the form of direct education aid (see page 442 of the program supplement to the state budget). There are about 160,000 students attending public schools in RI. Divide the first number by the second, and you come up with a figure of about $4,000 per student.

Which plan seems more fair: sending $400,000 to help 100 students stay in the school system of their choice, or forcing 100 students back to school systems they have chosen to leave?

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I SO agree with you about this. Who should be lobbied to make this a reality? I am emailing my state reps and senator today. I am also adding a paragraph about how charter schools should be accepted and supported in RI.

Cranston needs more state aid in general. And if I could have my way, the administration would ask the teacher's union to reopen the contract in order to bring the budget projections for the next three years within a 5% total allocation increase. Right now their budget increases for the next three years range between 9 and 12%. It is simply unsustainable and will make Cranston into a tax nightmare city in 10 years.

What it comes down to is that senior citizens will not have enough money to meet their basic needs, middle class families will struggle with decreasing income due to taxes, all so that 2000 teachers can have cadillac-style employee benefits. Until state aid can be stepped up significantly, we just can't afford it.

Posted by: citizenjane at November 18, 2005 10:40 AM

The actual cost to educate a child in Cranston is a bit over $9000. The only way your proposal would be fair for Cranston taxpayers, is to have the childs home town/city pay Cranston the additional $5000. Otherwise, Cranston taxpayers are still coming up short.

Posted by: Jim Hackett at November 18, 2005 11:33 AM

That is a very valid point, Jim. How does Mass. handle that problem?

Posted by: citizenjane at November 18, 2005 12:20 PM

I'm not familiar with how Massachusetts deals with this.

Posted by: Jim Hackett at November 18, 2005 12:31 PM

Because it costs $9,000 per pupil when the final per-pupil number is calculated doesn’t mean it costs $9,000 to add each new student. If you have classes with a capacity of X, but less than X students in some of them in any given year, it costs only a fraction of the theoretical per-pupil cost to add new students.

If you prefer macroeconomic arguments to microeconomic ones, Cranston was educating those extra hundred students while receiving $0 in assistance. Sending the students back has less to do with the quality of education than it does with who controls education.

CJ, I’ll do a bit more research into the specifics of how public school choice works in other places. As for who should be lobbied, perhaps this issue and charter schools should be candidates for voter initiative...

Posted by: Andrew at November 18, 2005 12:49 PM

If you go to see the Red Sox and there are 1000 unsold tickets at the start of the game, do you make the argument that you should get in for free, because what is the extra cost of you going in, and they probably won't sell the tickets at that point anyway?? If you go in, or don't go in, does it really matter to the Red Sox? Of course not - but you still have to pay. Why? Because if they didn't make you pay, and everyone found out about it, everyone would try to get in for free. Then you have a breakdown.

The same thing applies here. Arguably, letting a few Providence children into Cranston creates little extra cost. But, your pricing model will break down entirely if you end up letting in too many below your true cost.

Now, I don't disagree that the average cost of educating a child could be reduced with more people PAYING THEIR FAIR SHARE, and efficient capacity utilization, but that is assuming a lot when you are constrained by nonsensical union contracts that inhibit rational thought.
And, regardless of how incremental the cost may be, you just can't let Providence's children into Cranston below cost. It's patently unfair to Cranston taxpayers.

Posted by: Jim Hackett at November 18, 2005 1:48 PM

The way it works in Mass. is that the town that is sending a child to another public school has to pay the school recieving the child X amount of dollars. The amount, I think, is the average cost to have a student in class.

Posted by: Anthony at November 19, 2005 11:33 AM

Andrew, I am a public school teacher, and a supporter of both school choice and charter schools. But I must agree with Mr. Hackett whose Fenway analogy is perfect. Until methods of funding change, it is unfair to the students and taxpayers of Cranston. An extra 100 students has an impact on any educational system. That's 100 more students who need classroom teachers, plus specialists like art and phys. ed. Books and supplies are often purchased on a per pupil basis. And if even a handful of these students need special education services, the costs can go through the roof.

The idea that additional students can be absorbed into a school without impacting the other students is unrealistic. Every teacher knows - public or private, choice or charter - that a classroom of 20 students gets more than a class of 22, which gets more than a class of 24, etc.

I would love to see more charter schools in RI, and a true school choice system that allows all students access to the best education. The plan and the funding implications must come first.

Posted by: rightri at November 19, 2005 7:57 PM

1. I understand that you can't accept unlimited numbers of students from other places without impacting the quality of education.

However, using the final per-pupil expenditure as the metric of fairness is deeply flawed. Is it "fair" to tax the family who has one child in the school system the same as the faimly who has four? How about the family that had their kids education paid for by one tax rate twenty years ago, but is paying a different tax rate now? What is fair to them?

I'm not saying that economic fairness is not a consideration, just that the micro-level utilization-of-resources cost analysis is one part of fairness, not the whole thing.

2. Jim and Mike, I pretty certain you are not making this argument, but when fairness, and changing funding schemes come up in the same discussion, I start having nightmares about some judge ordering the rest of the towns in Rhode Island to subsidize the Providence school system to make everything "fair".

What do you have in mind for improving funding mechanisms?

Posted by: Andrew at November 20, 2005 11:07 AM

Let's understand that funding, in a macro sense, is not the issue. There is more than enough money being thrown at education in this country.
Here is my view of the problems that need to be overcome in our education system. When I look at what went on with Katrina down in New Orleans, you get a clear view of what happens when the government runs things. Realize that these are the same bureaucrats running the schools - on the federal, state and local level. Secondly, I look at what has happened to those industries dominated by labor unions - airlines, autos, and steel. If they aren't already bankrupt, they soon will be. Realize, again, that American education is dominated by labor unions. Since they are not subject to the free market, they simply force municipalities to raise taxes to pay more and more money for less and less results. If you want to ignore the elephant in the room, and try to argue that the unions aren't the problem, look at what even the government did regarding the Department of Homeland Security. They have a provision which does not allow for unionization. Why? Because they know that the mission of the department is too crucial to cede ANY level of control to unions. Which now raises this question - if Homeland Security is too important to allow the potential for unions, would anyone argue that the education of America's children is any less important?
So, my plan would begin by not having the government runs things, and eliminating unions from the equation.
Once you do that, the rest is easy.
Absent those changes, we will forever be pushing on a string trying to solve our problems regarding funding education in America.

Posted by: Jim Hackett at November 20, 2005 6:18 PM


Are you proposing that unions should be illegal in education?

This strikes me as a position that seeks to reverse half a century of political ground-gaining with a kind of law that would restrict people's freedom to form groups and advocate for themselves. It seems to me anything like this would create a tremendous backlash, something about 100 times worse than what Schwarzenegger just experienced in California.

I don't have the answer, but I think anything that is going to work is going to have to be a more persuasive tactic that involves getting education boards and administrators to buy into a better way to run things. You are probably familiar with The Education Partnership's proposals. These would be a great start.

I don't think you can get rid of unions. In the case of education, you can refuse to sign contracts with them, like Warwick, and eventually, years and years later, they might be forced to make some significant changes.

People in Cranston education like to say proudly, "We don't want to become another Warwick." My opinion is: we are heading in that direction. Eventually I think we will elect a school committee that will be dominated by fed-up taxpayers, and then we will be in the ugly no-contract phase of things for a good while. My prediction about when this will happen: three years from now, after taxes have been hiked three years in a row to fund the current teacher's contract.

Posted by: citizenjane at November 20, 2005 8:09 PM

No, CJ,
That is a position that seeks to reverse four decades of increasing failure in educating America's children. It depends on how you want to look at it. Sort of like the "half-empty, half-full" thing.

Posted by: Jim Hackett at November 21, 2005 7:48 PM

This link articulates the issue, and my qualms, perfectly.

Posted by: Jim Hackett at November 26, 2005 11:41 AM