Parents Voting With Their Kids’ Feet
The American taxpayer has long accepted that education is a public good — something worthy of funding with the common purse. Until recently, a majority of Americans, including parents, have also believed that public schools are a generally the right vehicle for that funding. However, opinion has changed rapidly, and the response by school administrators to COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of that change. A new survey finds that more than 80% of parents believe that taxpayer funds should follow students to whatever schools they attend, rather than defaulting to the defective public school system.
Even more tellingly, Matt Welch reports that “ Families are Fleeing Government Run Schools” — voting with their kids’ feet, as it were, against the sudden and unpredictable closures and suspensions of in-person learning. Welch, an editor at large at Reason Magazine, has been reporting on the shift taking place among the population — with an increasing number of both upper and lower-class progressives suddenly embracing school choice when the dysfunction of government-run schools became too glaring to ignore. He joined me to explain why parents are taking their kids out of public schools, and where they are all going.
Have the teachers’ unions overplayed their hand in demanding indefinite virtual learning and protections for their members at the expense of learning outcomes for children?
Bob Zadek 00:16
There is so much in our relationship to the government that is just “the way it’s always been.” We assume certain things are what they are. Who has the time to rethink every part of our life every minute of every day? Once in a while, important structural elements of our society get stress tested, and we start to wonder about elements that we have taken for granted. That is what is happening in public education.
Every day, there are articles talking about how we educate our children while managing the COVID pandemic. We are asking ourselves, “Who gets to decide? How do they get to decide? Where does the money go, tell me again? What are the roles of parents; the unions? What is the role of government? What’s the role of CDC?”
This is the perfect time to do a deep dive into all of these important topics, and ask ourselves along the way whether some basic assumptions we have made about the structure of the providing of education to our children are correct.
To help us understand these complex issues, I’m delighted to welcome back to the show, Matt Welch. Matt is the editor at large at Reason magazine, my favorite magazine.
Matt has also written The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America with Nick Gillespie. That’s a big task and they accomplish it quite well. Matt has most recently written an article whose headline says it all: Families are Fleeing Government Run Schools. Matt is experiencing government-run schools first hand because he is a customer of government-run schools living under the control of the New York City school system.
Matt Welch 05:06
Thank you so much for the generous description of my wonderful employer, Reason. I’m pleased and happy to have worked for it for most of the last 20 years.
Reign of Incompetents
Bob Zadek 05:19
Tell us the premise of the article.
Matt Welch 06:50
I’m a parent of two kids in the K-12 system, one of whom is entering eighth grade in public school. He goes to the school that was featured in the Nice White Parents podcast by the New York Times, which is amazing. The other one is going into first grade. We pulled her from the public school and put her into a private school. This is not a decision we took lightly, since I never went to a private school.
We did it because of the massive uncertainty created by New York City, like almost every big democratic run city in the country. I don’t really rush to that partisan conclusion, but it’s just numerically true. They made schooling completely unpredictable last year in ways that were just a huge challenge for everybody. We were lucky enough to have the means, and perhaps the foresight, to organize a learning pod where you pool up with a couple of other families. If the school decides on a Sunday night at 9:34pm, to send you an email saying the school is going to be closed for 10 days, which happened in February of this year, then you have a way to absorb that. Anyways, the uncertainty was so great and, we didn’t really know the extent to which
“Incompetents” — with a “ts” like the declaration of independents — had the most power in determining the policy of K-12 government run schools. We just didn’t want to be part of that.
We’re starting to get the preliminary numbers of enrollments for the fall, and a school 10–15 minutes from where I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, had just announced that they had just lost 1/3 of our enrollment in elementary school — down from 345 to 225 just since the pandemic — and as a result, they’re going to have to let teachers go. This is a huge change. Since I wrote that article, the public elementary school that we pulled my youngest out of also sent an email saying that their enrollment has gone down from 948 two years ago to less than 800 this year. These are some of the first indications in the country of what the fall enrollment picture is going to look like.
After last year, about 3.5 percent of students from the government-run K through 12 systems left, and many went into homeschooling. Private schools flattened a little bit down, charter schools went up, but homeschooling was actually the biggest thing. I have been writing about and participating locally in the policy decisions about this thing for the last two years. I had been predicting for a long time that the numbers to watch were coming this fall, since it is the first time that a lot of parents and families have had the opportunity to plan, because a pandemic hit in March of 2020. Then summer comes, the next fall comes, and people are creating policies on the fly. It’s difficult to pick up and move to a different state or a different district. It’s difficult and expensive to go into private systems or whatnot. This fall is the product of what we’ve learned over the past year and a half. These preliminary numbers indicate to me that we’re going to see an earth-shaking change in public education, attitudes towards the participation in it — including attitudes towards taxpayers, who have got to be wondering why we are paying more and more for a “free system” that people are running away from.
Bob Zadek 11:55
One of the alternatives is private schools in one form or another — charter schools being what comes to mind right away. Charter schools and private schools are also suffering from pandemic related problems. They have the same age demographic, obviously, they draw from the same pool of customers. What is there, structurally, that makes private schools to cater to their customers better than public schools? I’m sorry, for commodifying your two children as customers, but after all, that’s exactly what they are. I’m not minimizing their importance as individuals, obviously. What is the structural difference that enables private schools to seem to meet the needs of their customers more than public schools? They have the same motivation. When you answer the question, you’ll probably find it helpful to point out why it is important to the public schools for them to lose enrollment. What is there about how they get their money from the state that makes enrollment important?
Matt Welch 13:56
In most jurisdictions, a big chunk of school budgeting is based on per students. That means they’re going to lose a big chunk of funding. Now, they’re probably able to bridge the gap for a year because the federal government over the last two years, has sent something like close to $200 billion to pay for emergency Coronavirus related stuff. Generally speaking, in a given year, the federal government spends $40 billion. It’s a huge flood of money. In theory, that money was being sold as improvements to ventilation systems to do mitigation measures. In practice, when you look at the numbers, it’s almost all personnel. The teachers unions who have a completely outsized influence on school policies in democratic run policies, which right now includes the federal government. Dr. Jill Biden is a member of the National Education Association. She had the two teachers union presidents in the White House on literally day two of this administration.
The public schools eventually have to feel pressure budgetarily by not serving their students. It’s interesting to answer the first half of your question about a different approach. Charter schools are also public schools, funded by government money. They’re not generally unionized places, and they get to be much more nimble in the way they approach things. For instance, in the city of New York, they educate 10% of the K through 12 student population here because the government run schools didn’t have that great reputation, and aren’t as nimble about helping out being sensitive to parental needs. There’s an artificial cap that the state puts, because we have a crazy government in New York, on the number of physical charter schools there can be. Even with that, it still increased last year. Remote learning was generally a disaster, but charter schools are handling it better. They’re being more sensitive, they’re being more creative and flexible. Parents, especially poor and more minority families, found that to be pretty useful.
Private schools were open the entire year, across the street from a public school that was maybe open twice a week, and then subject to all kinds of hair-trigger closures and shutdowns. This is especially true in California, where California had the least open schools in the country. Right across the street from any of those least open schools were private schools, Catholic schools and whatnot. They were all open, for the most part, except where they’re subjected to too much rule setting by state governments, but generally speaking, even though globally, the number of private schools went down in enrollments last year, they’re starting to tick back up this year.
They just suffered from a lot of material shortages that parents had everyone scrambling around. The exodus from those institutions from public schools, and then also particularly to homeschooling, which doubled in this country. The biggest growth elements of homeschooling are black families. That is changing the way that people engage. A lot of people have experienced at least some remote learning. So they became face to face with the curriculum, and also face to face with the decision making process. When you start looking at the way the sausage is made… oh boy, I know so many parents who couldn’t believe what they saw. I had a better inkling of it, because I’ve been writing about and participating in some of the policymaking in New York, especially as it concerns the subject of equity, meaning equality among races and classes of people in the way that things are provided. So I was face to face with a lot of crazy stuff. I knew going in that it was crazy, but after a lot of things around the pandemic, I came to a rational conclusion, “Yeah, I don’t really think my kid needs to go through this.”
Bob Zadek 19:15
A subtext of your article could very well have been customers discovering that they have been purchasing an inferior product. It’s far more subtle when there are issues about curriculum and things of that nature, where it is a little harder for a typical parent to discover on a day by day basis. The only real basis is perhaps through testing, which is revealing itself, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Is your child going to be at school? That is, do you have to arrange for childcare, or must you stay home from your job to take care of your child who is now going to be at home? Parents are realizing in as profound a way as possible that maybe their vendor, the government-run school, is not the best vendor in the world. Maybe we have to look for alternatives. COVID is in many ways, a very visual stress test of the product itself, and of the way it makes decisions.
COVID merely brought to the front pages the inferiority of the government-sold product. Now we better look elsewhere. All of a sudden the demand for the privately sold product is increasing. I think it’s a fair subtext of your article that families are fleeing the government. I’m not a headline writer but parents are changing vendors in large quantities and COVID is not the cause of it. COVID is the stress test that brought all this to the fore.
The Distinction Between Public and Private Schools
Bob Zadek 22:08
You have the administration of a government run school, which has a problem, it has to provide education, and in a way that doesn’t threaten the health and safety of its customers. A private school has the very same challenge. What is there structurally that makes one reach a wrong conclusion so terribly wrong, and the other institution, the private business or charter school, seems to make the right decision — one which is more appealing to its customers?
Matt Welch 22:54
There are two big factors in determining whether a given school district is going to be open or closed, and neither of those two things have to do with the pandemic, the virus, the local positivity rate, or the number of deaths. The two factors are, how did this district vote when given a chance to vote for Donald Trump? The second thing is the influence of the local teachers union. Those are the two biggest factors by far. I think it is the second one that also has driven a lot of parents to pay close attention to the statements of people like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, or the school union in Los Angeles or Chicago. Not only did they err really badly on the side of closing things down, even though international experience in all the other countries for the most part kept their schools open last fall, including during the Delta virus waves in the UK over the summer. The school unions would also treat parents advocating for keeping schools open as if it was “white talking.” They would open up all these weird can of worms about racism. You just want someone to babysit your kids and all of these really accusatory, nasty, divisive things are said.
Also, it is about the ability of teachers and teachers unions to work at home. That’s what they wanted to do. It was about choice, yes, but it was about school choice for teachers, not about school choice for kids. Once people saw that was the mechanism, they lost faith. A quick example for me is that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who I’m no fan of, flipped the script on schools and said, “We have to stay open. Remote learning is a debacle.” I was happy to hear that. This is happening right when we were making our decision about our own six year old. I rationally looked at it and said, “sure, he might say that. But what are the rules that are going to be promulgated afterwards? What is the policy going to be like? Who is going to be influencing that policy?” The answer is teachers unions. The policies and the rhetoric are likely to make elementary schools close a lot of the time. Seeing what those policies are, I’ve been vindicated. My elementary school will be closing a whole bunch this year and kids will be quarantined on a hair trigger, whereas the private school literally across the street that we’re going to is going to stay open.
Competition for Public Schools: Will it Lead to Improvements?
Bob Zadek 26:47
The overall quality of the service delivered by the government run school improves, because now they have to deal with the concept of competition. Their customers now have an alternative. They are not a captive customer base where their customers have no choice. To what extent do you think there is hope that government run schools might improve?
Matt Welch 28:34
I think that it’s more likely that the positive reforms are going to come from without than from within. There will be some nimble response to competitions. There will be some good mayors, and some good school district chiefs, who will look at this and say this is an existential change in our business. We need to respond to it as such. In fact, I think what is happening is that half of the country is introducing some form of legislation spending, where most states have 20% of the tax money that they spend on the total budget is on K through 12 education.
Canada is a big deal. They’ve been patting themselves saying that that funding should flow to students, not school buildings. That is a huge shift that’s basically institutionalizing on a national level the charter school system. The money goes to Democrats, so they’ve been railing against charter schools. Bill de Blasio says he hates charter schools. He says he hates the schools that teach 10% of his kids. Are you kidding me? Anyways, the money goes into the backpack of the student wherever the student goes. That could be homeschooling too, which again, has grown faster than any other category. In the last 18 months, these things are catching fire.
As someone who appreciates competition and education and innovation, and all of it, a big part of me is rooting on this. At the same time, a big part of me is worrying, because we’ve seen what happens with families on math, and the school systems in big cities. It’s what happened in the 60s and 70s, with the decrepitude of schools and also a bunch of other social flashpoints that happened back then. It changed the city, and it’s certainly on the verge of changing my neighborhood right now. That change isn’t necessarily the greatest for the people who can’t or won’t muster the ability to leave these decaying systems, which then become decaying cities. They are in a pretty bad pickle. Change is going to come from outside under pressure, including from taxpayers, who are saying, “Why are property taxes too high, when nobody even wants the free school that they’re paying for?”
Bob Zadek 31:52
I’m so glad that you mentioned just a second ago, the issue of giving what you call the “backpack funding.” You pointed out what was to be on my outline for this morning show. The very next topic is that we have schools that are educating students. We would call it a public good. We all benefit in general from having educated youngsters and an overall informed society that benefits everybody, because we make better choices at the polls if we are educated. Certainly education is a public good. We all benefit now. Should the government have a role in education? Well, yes, going back to the founding, they profoundly supported the principle that government has a role in education, and that role can be simply one or the other of the following: Government can underwrite the cost to make sure that the people have enough money to become educated. This is the appropriate role of government, supported by tax dollars, since we all benefit from an educated public. The social compact is that we ought to have no problem in contributing voluntarily through taxes to make sure all of us are somewhat educated. There’s no dispute about that.
Now, the question I opened my show with is that we have taken something for granted because it has always been that way. Now we have concluded that the government should economically support education. It’s a huge leap, though, to say that the government should be the provider of education. That’s a big jump, it is irrational, and there’s no reason on earth to think that the government is particularly good at providing anything except perhaps common defense.
What you’re talking about in your piece is that if you simply allow the people who are buying and receiving the service to be given the money to make the choice, they will, in the most democratic way, vote with their dollars. If the government wants to offer a product, they can, but not exclusively. We have learned a long time ago compliments of FedEx, that the post office doesn’t necessarily provide the best product at the cheapest price, but they get better with FedEx breathing down their back. That analogy works for school works for the school system.
Matt, your piece talking about customers fleeing the school system was really a time for giving people the freedom to choose. All we are saying in this whole conversation is nothing other than personal freedom — do not force anybody to buy a product from the government. Isn’t this all about empowering the customers by giving them the dollars so they can vote with their dollars and vote for the best product? The collective wisdom of all of us is so much smarter than the restricted wisdom of a few people in government who make the decisions.
Matt Welch 37:36
My first job was in the parks and recs department for the city of Lakewood, California, and I only found out later the significance of that city. It became one of the first cities in the country to be what is known as a “contract city,” by which it just simply meant outsourcing its functions to private contractors.
Bob Zadek 37:55
I thought that was Sandy Springs, Georgia.
Matt Welch 37:58
That’s the governing charter contract city, which is a little bit different. Lakewood contracted out services. Not all of them. They kept their own parks department that I worked for but they had at that time in the 1950s a unique idea that these are just services and there is no reason that a government needs to provide them, we just need to guarantee them. So for any number of things, trash collection being chief among them, they contracted them out to private vendors who would be up for like three year contracts, and then they would have to roll it over, competing again on price and quality. As a result, if you look on a map of all the cities around Lakewood, most of them are disasters. Compton, Downey, Park parts of Long Beach, they were not governed particularly well because they were doing the old bottle that the government should be the monopolist provider of ex service. You can reorganize money so much better.
To the point about the moral freedom to choose, this is where it becomes really personal for a lot of parents in this process. I was able to exercise my freedom, the latitude to organize a pod for my youngest kid. She and the kids in that little pod were able to make a pretty decent year out of a pretty bad year. It infuriates me that people do not have the choice whether by money, latitude, or just simply because there are no charter schools allowed in this district that they’re in, to make similar choices.
It should be a stain on the conscience of all, especially wealthier people who have organized their lives so they can exercise that school choice. Understand that the government, generally speaking, does not organize well as a monopolist provider of services. This is something that was much more widely understood and accepted by Democrats even in the 1970s than we see now. They’re going to have to reorganize their thinking because the public school model is on the verge of blowing up.
Remote versus in-class education
Bob Zadek 40:42
Now, on the issue of charter schools, I learned something that struck me to some degree as counterintuitive. Perhaps you can speak to it. In the decision of charter school versus government run schools, a sub issue appears to be, remote learning versus in class learning. There are very strange racial divides on that subject and different racial groups have different desires. It’s strange to me how it divides along racial lines. If you can, how does the issue of different points of view about in class versus remote learning play into the decision of public school versus private school, and if you can give any insights into why that is occurring? I’d appreciate it.
Matt Welch 41:52
A couple of framing points at the outset. It is always good to remember that charter schools are public schools. They are just not government-operated public schools. Private schools and charter schools have been just about as closed as public schools, because they usually have to operate under the same pandemic restrictions about what gets to be open or closed. Yet, they still were a more popular choice. The reluctance to go back to school in person has polled much higher among black families in particular, but also Latino families and Asian families. It might surprise people. However, those polling numbers always look different, when suddenly those same parents are offered the opportunity to go inside of a school building. Disproportionately the schools that were closed were schools in minority and poor areas, even within the same city.
In New York City, if your school was reliably open, or as open as possible last year, chances are you’re going to have more white kids than not. If it was all closed all year long, chances are you are going to have more black kids than not. It is strange. It’s a function of disproportion, it is economic indicators and things like that. As soon as those parents are given the opportunity to come inside of the school building, every race, creed, color, and socio-economic status decide to go in-person. That skews numbers, and people will like the poll one way but then when you give them the option, it looks a little bit different.
It remains true that black families in particular, have more reluctance about sending their kids to the school buildings. Here’s where a paradox comes up. Mentioned before, De Blasio in New York has wanted to open schools and prevent remote learning. Well, now you look around and these black families who are reluctant to send their kids back in school, they don’t trust the school district themselves. They think it is unsafe, or for whatever reason they have this distress.
What can they do now? They can turn to charter schools, and it turns out that charter schools are going to be benefiting from saying they have a remote option for all of you. There’s a lesson in all of this, which is that the one size fits all models of top down planning tends to make some subsections of parents upset. It might do well for this group this year. It might go bad for the same group next year. As a result of these things, it’s the charter schools who can bail out the public school system in New York because a lot of black families in particular don’t feel safe going back into small buildings. The charter school system is more flexible.
Bob Zadek 45:32
For the second time, in this one hour broadcast, you have mentioned what was in my brain. In our country, indeed, in the world today, we are getting more choice than ever before. The world has found out how to give each of us exactly what we want at the price we want to pay for it more or less. In any event, clearly, that is the trend that is indisputable. Here we have government run education, which as you just said, is a burden by delivering one size fits all. We are all individuals, and all of us one way or another is different from the other to some degree. To me, the ultimate fatal deceit of government run schools is they are burdened structurally so they can’t or they don’t have the skill to deliver a specialized product, which is education perfect for the gifted child. For the child who’s less gifted, for the child whose orientation is more to the arts and the sciences, we just reduce it to the lowest common denominator. Private schools have learned and charter schools have learned how to do that. It seems to me, Matt, that a crucial dynamic is just as you have said, the public schools, government run schools will always be burdened with one size fits all. I think that’s going to be their downfall. Any thoughts on the profound competitive disadvantage that government run schools have?
Matt Welch 48:50
Yes, it is additionally the burdens because if you look at the preponderance of public school education policymaking, the trend lines just prior to the pandemic, and this has remained throughout. The trend has been to get rid of gifted and talented programs, it’s been to get rid of New York specialized high schools. We don’t want anybody rising too far above the trend line because if we can measure that backwards, it doesn’t look like the demographics that we would like to achieve, so there must be something institutionally racist about it.
We started to see enrollment declines in New York, especially in the pilot districts, which mine is one of them, who started implementing some of these leveling policies. We started seeing that one year before the pandemic’s enrollment had grown uninterrupted for decades, it declined to 7% in my district overnight, the first year that they did a radical overhaul of admissions policies and got rid of all possible student performance metrics as part of it. This is happening nationwide. These two things are compounding each other Just when everyone is learning that they can tailor make their own homeschooling product for their kids. Public Schools are saying, nope, we’re not going to do a specialization at all. It’s not going to end well for them.
Bob Zadek 50:14
Matt, I’m just going to close with one observation on this one size fits all approach. You may have noticed that the New York City Department of Education is looking into getting rid of things like the honor roll and class rankings in school. I’m going to quote, “recognizing student excellence.” The honor roll and class rank can be detrimental to learners who find it more difficult to reach academic success. Don’t you dare award a student for doing well, because it’s going to hurt the precious feelings of the students who didn’t make the honor roll. If that becomes the policy, it’s game over for education in New York City.
Matt, how can our friends out there follow your work at Reason magazine, please?
Matt Welch 51:15
Please go to reason.com. You can also follow @reason on Twitter. You can follow me on twitter @MattWelch.
Bob Zadek 51:23
Please follow Matt. He writes with humor and intellect and he has a worldview that he can see through the fog more than any of the journalists I have ever read. This is Bob Zadek thanking Matt for joining us for this past hour and inviting you to please subscribe to and enjoy the podcast The Bob Zadek Show. Give your comments plus and minus. We welcome all constructive criticism, rank us if you choose to do so, and I hope to be back again next Sunday for another hour of libertarian thought. Thank you so much and enjoy the rest of the three day weekend.
- Students, Not Systems, with Corey DeAngelis, Nov. 11, 2019
- Lisa Snell on School Choice Experiments, March 19, 2017
- Jason Bedrick on Overregulating School Choice, April 17, 2016
- Robert Pondiscio on California’s Common Core Test Results October 25, 2015
- Jeff Reed on Breaking the Government’s Monopoly on Education May 4, 2015
- Back to School: A History Lesson from the 1918 Pandemic with Ron Jones, August 14, 2020