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Competition in Education Eludes Hartford’s Model

By Laurence D. Cohen

October 03, 2011

It’s September now, so the game of Musical Chairs is probably over for Hartford school kids.

By accident or by lottery or by home address or by race, or by faking an address and sneaking in where they don’t belong, the kids are now safely plopped in one school or another.

For those who remember those docile days of the “neighborhood school,” the modern Hartford experience (duplicated, to some degree, in many American cities) seems rambunctious.

Of course, “choice” has always been a part of the puzzle for decades, with religious schools, distant prep schools, local private schools, escaping to the suburbs — and a bit of “home schooling.”

But, for the vast majority, the home address determined the education factory where you would labor — a tradition and instinct that remains true today, if viewed now with somewhat more suspicion.

The chaotic, restrictive educational marketplace (albeit, a somewhat opaque, imperfect marketplace) that greeted the Hartford kids offered up the “local” school, a different “local” school, a magnet school, a charter school, private schools, and, in small dollops, seats in suburban public schools.

This is not quite the glorious chaos of the marketplace, in which self-interested consumers and self-interested suppliers sniff each other out, to the benefit of us all. But, it’s a start.

Much of this is prompted by Sheff v. O’Neill, the desegregation court case mandating that Connecticut spend at least as much time counting black and brown and white noses in Hartford schools, as it does teaching anyone geometry.

The unspoken belief that Hartford’s traditional, minority-dominated schools are hideous, lead to all manner of bus routes and marketing schemes and the invariable quota systems designed to create a mediocre “choice,” while keeping judges and other busybodies happy.

The traditional neighborhood schools do the best they can, within the constraints of the usual nightmare of state law and union rules and a difficult student body. The charter schools offer up a “public” alternative, presumably free of some of the union and bureaucratic constraints in the traditional schools. And the magnet schools promise educational magic to entice white and black and brown city and suburban brothers and sisters to go to school together, in one, big happy “Sheff” family. And, in limited, sometimes grudging quantities, private and suburban schools offer up some seats to minority kids from Hartford.

The rules, regulations, forms to be filled out in triplicate, and constraints on true free choice make this marketplace somewhat less than perfect, but even the hint that a family may be empowered to seek out better schooling represents a market victory of sorts.

Nothing was more gratifying this spring than seeing the “Sheff” watchdogs and magnet school folks get grumpy, when the city’s public schools ran a mediocre little ad campaign, suggesting that kids could stay home in neighborhood schools and actually learn something, whether or not there was a cadre of white kids present. That was a sign of marketplace competition, however limited.

In an increasing number of jurisdictions across the country, true “voucher” experiments are at work or in the process of being introduced. The premise (and in such cities as Milwaukee and Cleveland, the reality) is real “school choice,” in which city kids get a ticket out-of-town, or at least, across town, to find a school that’s right for them.

These experiments, some of them long-running, are not perfect but they better mimic a true marketplace than the work-in-progress that is Hartford.

Competition, in many forms, is encroaching on public education. That’s good news, however strange the market mechanism right now.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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