Thursday, September 16, 2004
[L]ike any good parent, I called the principal's office at my local public elementary school to check it out before sending my son. Alas, despite spending $20,000 per child, our school had trouble returning three phone messages left during normal business hours. On my fourth try I reached a live person, and had a brief conversation:
"Hi, I'm Bob Maranto. I'm a parent who lives in [your school's] attendance zone. My son will be old enough for kindergarten next fall. He's actually right on the edge, so he could go next fall or the following fall, and I was wondering if I could come visit the school sometime."
"We don't have any visiting this year," the administrator replied. "We're doing construction and a lot of things are going on."
"Could I watch a class in session?"
"No, even when there's no construction you could not watch a class."
"Well, could I meet my son's teacher?"
"No, the teachers are busy teaching all day and then they go home."
As we used to say when I was in government, this is customer service worthy of the Internal Revenue Service. It also corresponds to playground gossip about this school, which has test scores lower than nearby schools.
A mere five months and 22 phone calls, faxes, and e-mails later--to the superintendent, school board, principal, and various other "public servants"--I was allowed to visit my son's likely school. Someday, I hope to watch a class.
But must it be so hard? Why not open public schools to the public?
As the writer points out, not all public schools are like this, particularly when public school choice is available to parents.
After seven years of research, I'm convinced that Arizona public schools cater to parents because of school choice combined with heavy reliance on state funding rather than local property taxes. Unlike most states, Arizona has open enrollment across district lines as well as 500 charter schools--many started by teachers--so parents unhappy with one school can easily find another. In addition, state funding means that education dollars follow enrollment, so schools that alienate parents lose money--which in turn alarms school boards and makes principals unemployed.
In response to competition, particularly competition from charter schools, Arizona public schools increasingly offer Montessori options, back-to-basics programs and a wide range of other innovations to keep parents from going to other public schools and taking state dollars with them. And they do all this on budgets far less than in my state [Pennsylvania].
Lucky for us, Minnesota has this type of choice as well.