Opinion Columns & Blogs

Robert Litan: State’s educational system lacks choice

Widening income inequality, coupled with the depopulation of the middle class, is putting the American dream out of reach of tens of millions of our citizens. To avoid this fate for the next generation, we must narrow, and ideally end, the wide educational achievement gaps between students raised in low-income families and those born into better circumstances.

The Legislature is charged with coming up with a new formula for distributing the roughly $4 billion in state funds spent in K-12 education that ideally would close some of this gap. Paying more to highly effective teachers, especially those willing to teach kids with low-attainment records, would certainly help.

But no one should expect miracles from any new funding formula, because even the most well-intentioned changes in spending cannot correct for a fundamental flaw in our state’s educational system: the lack of choice.

People with means can “choose” their school by moving to higher-performing school districts, sending their kids to private schools or home schooling. But the typical student from a middle- or low-income family, who lags his or her more affluent peers in education performance, has no effective choice.

This is morally and economically unacceptable, because a child who starts out and stays behind in school has a low chance of ever catching up to his or her peers in income and status later in life. And on current trends, it could take generations, if ever, to alter this fact.

Other states – both “blue” and “red” – are out of patience and have authorized public “charter schools” that give principals and teachers much greater flexibility than in traditional schools.

Though simply slapping the name “charter” on a school does not make it great, as the failure of for-profit Edison Schools in Wichita demonstrates, there are award-winning nonprofit charter groups – such as KIPP, Success Academy and Uncommon Schools, to name a few – that give largely minority students from low-income backgrounds much better educations than traditional public schools.

Kansans who want change can urge their local districts to ask the State Board of Education to become “innovative school districts,” which under Kansas law can permit charter schools. Likewise, Kansans can urge the Legislature to give the state board the authority to grant such applications, as is done in several states. Once these efforts are mounted, philanthropists will have incentives they do not now have to support the creation of charter schools.

Broader choice from educational “consumers” – students and their families – would encourage school leaders to up their game to deliver better outcomes. Broader student choice would help teachers, too, giving them opportunities to earn more money in settings that also give them more freedom.

Last week the Brookings Institution came out with its new Education Choice and Competition Index, which quantifies school districts’ choice options and quality of education. Wichita’s USD 259 ranks 73rd out of 112 large school districts in the country.

We can and must do better, for the sake of our kids and the future of our city.

Robert Litan, a Wichita lawyer-economist, is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a board member of Success for Kansas Students.