Too Bureaucratic To Fail: Why Bad Schools Won’t Go Belly Up

The faithful like to claim that the word “church” means a body of people, not a building.

If only the state boards of education, teacher’s unions, parents of students, and textbook publishers felt the same way about the word “school.” Banks go belly up and receive government bailouts. Churches may morally corrode and financially “settle” with their victims, but they still get to keep their tax breaks. Yet rarely does student corruption (i.e. the demise of the individual’s enthusiasm to learn) or the administrative erosion of educational standards and practices impart any kind of penalty on a public school.

Things seems to have gotten so bad that talk of penalties are now on the table. The only question now is who will be the executioner of these educational institutions: parents or politicians? National Journals Eliza Krigman reports on a new “parent trigger” option for California, while at the partisan Texas Policy think tank, Brooke Terry considers that answers lie in policies found in the land of the buckeye, but notes:

If the evidence does not point to success, why do school leaders and policymakers continue to push for restructuring a school versus just shutting it down and starting anew? Politics.

It is very hard politically for a school superintendent or a politician to tell their constituents that a school in their community is so bad it is beyond fixing. They take a risk of angering their constituents who may have emotional ties to the school. So, in most cases, it is easier to come up with a list of action items to improve the school versus allowing the school to face the consequences of its mediocre performance and get shut down.

Terry also links to Andy Smarick at EducationNext.org, where Smarick proposes several reasons why the threat of closure might act as an effective penalty for public schools that produce poor students:

This would have three benefits. First, children would no longer be subjected to schools with long track records of failure and high probabilities of continued failure.

Second, the fear of closure might generate improvement in some low-performing schools. Failure in public education has had fewer consequences (for adults) than in other fields, a fact that might contribute to the persistent struggles of some schools. We should have limited expectations in this regard, however. Even in the private sector, where the consequences for poor performance are significant, some low-performing entities never become successful.

Third, and by far the most important and least appreciated factor, closures make room for replacements, which have a transformative positive impact on the health of a field. When a firm folds due to poor performance, the slack is taken up by the expansion of successful existing firms—meaning that those excelling have the opportunity to do more—or by new firms. New entrants not only fill gaps, they have a tendency to better reflect current market conditions. They are also far likelier to introduce innovations: Google, Facebook, and Twitter were not products of long-standing firms. Certainly not all new starts will excel, not in education, not in any field. But when provided the right characteristics and environment, their potential is vast.

But Smarick’s suggested benefits are mere political palliatives. His third benefit offers the least amount of remedy: When a firm folds due to poor performance, the slack is taken up by the expansion of successful existing firms—meaning that those excelling have the opportunity to do more—or by new firms. If only there were some general way of proving this were true. Smarick offers some sexy examples with Google, Facebook, and Twitter, but notice he didn’t mention Lehman Brothers or any other banking firm. I wonder who took up their slack when they failed?

Smarick’s second benefit is adequate, but his first is just absurd. Children would no longer be subjected to schools with long track records of failure and high probabilities of continued failure. Aren’t these “long track records of failure” a part of their American heritage? Shouldn’t we stop looking at the educational accomplishments of foreigners and merely be impressed with our own mistakes?


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