By Bob Griffin
For those who seek a better value education (better results at a lower cost) in Anchorage, policies with proven results are the only ones that should be considered. The facts show that more financial resources will not increase student achievement and lower dropout rates. Unfortunately, this failed policy assumption is the current strategy of the Anchorage School District. And it is costing taxpayers a bundle. A more promising solution: competition for both resources and students.
As a monopoly, the ASD is shielded from meaningful competition and has no incentive to keep costs under control and quality high. Prior to the deregulation of the telecommunications industry AT&T had virtually no competition and long distance calls were exorbitantly high. When competition entered the marketplace, innovation grew, costs declined and AT&T had to become leaner to capture market share. Likewise, competition in education would spur innovative practices, adapt to the marketplace and ensure more cost-effective practices.
Some have argued that education is too important to be exposed to the “rough and tumble” of competition. On the contrary, because education is so important to this country, strong competition is needed to get it back on track. It is time to change the paradigm from “we’ve always done it this way before” to “let’s adapt our education system to meet the needs of the youth and the country.” It is not about bureaucrats and turf battles.
Today, with no real competition the ASD spends about 60 percent more per pupil than the U.S. average. And it’s getting worse: costs per student have risen an unbelievable 104 percent (adjusted for inflation) since 2001. Has anyone in Anchorage received a similar pay raise? For all this taxpayer generosity, the ASD perennially posts lackluster test scores and a below average high school graduation rate. Of course, the ASD will assert that it is different because the number of economically dis-advantaged students (EDS) and English language learners (ELL) is much higher. These are excuses, not reasons. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which is similar in size to ASD has a much higher number of ELL and EDS students and a significantly higher graduation rate than ASD. Remarkably, the SFUSD spends only about half as much per student as the ASD. Why is this?
The key element contributing to the success of the San Francisco schools was the introduction of competition based school reform known as “weighted student formula,” first used in Edmonton, Alberta. Parents were given more choice in selecting schools, and principals were given more latitude in budget allocation, staffing and curriculum. Individual schools competed with each other for students and the funding for each student. Additionally, schools were given more funds for attracting students in poverty, with disabilities, and other challenges. Competition for available resources improves the educational system for all.
The Anchorage community would benefit greatly from education reforms that increase choice and competition. This can be seen in the performance of our local charter schools which operate on about one-third of the per student costs as the ASD. Other urban school districts that have embraced the Edmonton model or similar programs such as, Seattle, Oakland, Houston, St Paul, and Boston have seen dramatic improvements. ASD has the demographics, resources, and staff that could make it one of the best urban school districts in the country. Instead, because of the lack of competition, we continue to have the most expensive, mediocre district in our region.
Bob Griffin is a research fellow in education at the Alaska Policy Forum. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.