Do Our Public Schools Have A “Post Office” Problem?

As anyone who has been following the news over the last year or so must know, the United States Post Office (USPS) is dealing with an unprecedented financial crisis.  The combination of low—and still shrinking—mail volume and the overhead costs of infrastructure and personnel practices developed during a time when the USPS had a monopoly on the delivery of information has produced record deficits.  The possible remedies range from the pretty lousy—to the even worse; most proposals for saving the USPS in this age of email, file scanning, and Federal Express revolve around some combination of facility closures, cuts in services, and deep reductions in personnel.

Our public schools find themselves in a similar bind.  The total number of school age children has declined precipitously in many districts, and parents willing to pay for private schools or home school on top of what they already provide in tax dollars to our public schools is further sapping enrollments; moreover, public school buildings constructed during a time when ladies wore white gloves to shop in downtown department stores are both aging and antiquated.  Add to this mix continued pressing questions about whether our public schools are doing an adequate job of preparing students to compete in a fast-moving global marketplace, and you can see that today’s problems will not simply vanish tomorrow.  Even if our economy goes through a miracle boom in the next year or so, the financial problems facing our schools are both structural and systemic, and simply tossing more wads of cash, borrowed or otherwise, at our classrooms to maintain a problematic status quo will not provide a long-term fix.

Many urban school districts—Detroit and Kansas City being but two vivid examples—have already permanently closed down enormous numbers of school buildings in an effort to stem tides of red ink by “right-sizing” their systems to more closely align with the actual school age populations in their cities.  Suburban and rural districts are, likewise, facing growing pressures to consolidate and close schools that might be no longer necessary—more often than not in the face of vocal community opposition.

However, as much as individual school closings might hurt today, we may be at only the beginning of what many demographers believe is a long-term decline of the school age population in our aging society—and this could push us toward an even more significant re-examination of how we deliver education to our children.  Indeed, given the enormous boom in Internet learning, educational computer software, and virtual classrooms available to our students of almost every age, one cannot help but wonder if picking up sleepy children and adolescents in large yellow buses the morning of each school day, bringing them to expensive centralized facilities that are in varying states of decay, and driving them home again after 7-8 hours of seat time instruction constitutes a particularly clever business model for the 21st century.

Given the Information Age resources now available, this might be the time to finally enable parents to make decisions about their children’s educations.  By making available to parents—perhaps by way of educational accounts—the same tax money per pupil that now flows into our public systems, perhaps we can now allow them to support more nimble private sector alternatives that can provide more and better options for schooling, including ones that allow parents to spend more quality time at home rather than racing off to work to earn the taxes necessary to ship their children elsewhere.

Of course, households where both parents—or the single parent—work or attend school will still want their children kept in a safe environment while they are away from home; however, this argument alone might not be sufficient to maintain the present system as an exceedingly expensive form of taxpayer-supported day care.  Again, by providing the same amount of per-pupil cash that now flows into our public schools directly to parents to spend as they choose on their children’s educations, you can’t help but wonder if many parents could not find better ways to spend the same dollars on locally based and initiated alternatives that will spring up as funds become available.

Just as, for example, ending the monopoly on phone services helped make possible private sector innovation that drove unprecedented advances that liberated us from land lines, so breaking the public school education monopoly might well allow us to build on those same advances to improve the quality of our children’s educations.  At the very least, the opportunity for some private sector initiative with our hard-earned tax dollars might push our public schools to more keenly evaluate their present modes of operation.

Or we could continue to watch those large yellow buses wheel slowly around the town and wonder when our public schools will finally deliver on their yearly promises to improve—before we go home to lick some stamps.

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