Time to free New York’s schools

school_2301645bHow many people would send their children to private schools, if they could afford it? Polls usually suggest that a clear majority would do so. So, here’s a question, why not make it so everyone can afford it?

Wait, I hear some of you cry, why not make public schools so good that no-one wants to go to private schools? Why can’t America be like Sweden, with a first class welfare state? Okay, then why not be like Sweden?

Sweden has a superb initiative that has been copied in other countries known as “free schools”. These are privately owned and run schools funded by taxpayers. Anyone – parents, churches, charities, companies – can set up new schools and get them funded with the same capitation fee as the state pays to its own schools.

In New York, the state spends around $20,000 a year per pupil. Imagine if parents could establish their own schools and receive that funding from the state. You could set up a school in your own house with five or six pupils and have easily enough money to hire a full-time teacher. This would be entirely sufficient for elementary education, though high schools require more specialist teaching. Of course, for that reason, education for high school students is more expensive, so elementary pupils would not attract the full $20,000 each – that’s an average across K-12. You might need as many as eight or ten pupils to be able to afford a full time teacher. 

Free schools are expected to teach all the basics, but don’t have to teach the same curriculum as government schools. This creates an immediate variety and choice. As Per Unckel, Governor of Stockholm and former education minister of Sweden put it: “Education is so important that you can’t just leave it to one producer. Because we know from monopoly systems that they do not fulfill all wishes”.

Of course, New York already has a system which allows some limited choice. There are charter schools. However, there are only 140 charter schools in the whole state. That is not even one for every five school districts. By contrast, Sweden, with only half the population of New York State, has around 900 free schools. They receive only $7,700 per year, little more than a third of the money New York spends on its schools, but still produce good results.

The diversity of provision which could arise fairly quickly in a state like New York, with its very heavy spending per pupil, would dramatically transform educational outcomes. And it would not require heavy layers of bureaucracy to administer it. Small, local schools, would be closely monitored by parents. Parents are in a better position than bureaucrats both to monitor schools, and to take swift action if the school is lacking. The slow procedures of a union-bound government bureaucracy mean that schools can carry on being bad, year after year. Free schools depend on parents keeping their children there. Even one or two parents threatening to pull out of a micro-school would be a powerful incentive to improve. 

To survive, free schools have to satisfy not an annual inspection, but the daily experience of parents talking to their children. To exist at all they have to be better than government schools. Unfortunately, that isn’t hard.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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