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Kansas should let markets regulate schools

School blackboardWhen markets are not allowed to work, we waste energy fighting over laws and volumes of regulations.

Earlier this year the Wichita Eagle made a state-wide issue (literally) out of something that could self-regulate, if only we would let it.

The issue is what proportion of Kansas school spending finds its way “into the classroom” — whatever that means — and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s use of this statistic.

The front page Sunday article (Governor’s numbers come under question) spent over 1,000 words on the topic. It covers where Brownback got the number he uses, the controversy over how to classify spending as “classroom” or other, and troubles surrounding an advocacy group that pushed for more spending going to the classroom.

Why is this issue important? In Kansas, most children attend government schools that are funded and regulated by government. This means that how schools spend money is a political issue. There will be arguments.

In the private sector, however, we don’t see these types of arguments. Do we argue in public about how much the grocery store spends on administrative overhead compared to other spending? Of course not. The managers and owners of the grocery store are intensely interested in this issue. The public is too, but only in how the management of the grocery store affects their shopping experience.

If shoppers don’t like the way a store is managed, they shop somewhere else. Management may notice this and make changes that customers appreciate. If management doesn’t adapt, the store will likely close and be replaced by other stores that do a better job delivering what customers want.

Or, some shoppers may like a high level of management in a grocery store — one with more personal service. Some like a bare-bones store where you sack your groceries yourself. This variation in customer tastes and needs leads to what we observe: Broad diversity in the types of grocery stores shoppers can choose from.

The point is that in the private sector, people get to choose what they like. They choose what’s best for them. But with our system of public schools funded and regulated by government, there is no choice. (Yes, you can escape the public schools and use others, but you still must pay for the government schools, and many families can’t afford to pay for both.)

There’s a factor that leads to this diversity of grocery stores and self-regulation focused on meeting consumers’ needs. It’s market competition.

But Kansas has no market competition in schools, unless you want to escape the system entirely and still pay for it. We have a very weak charter school law, meaning there are very few charter schools in Kansas. We have no vouchers or tax credit scholarships.

If we had these instruments of school choice in Kansas, government schools would face market competition. They would have to start being responsive to customers. We could allow schools to decide for themselves how much to spend on management and things other than the classroom. Market competition would guide schools in structuring their management and budgets to best meet the needs of schoolchildren and parents.

If we had school choice in Kansas, we would have a more diverse slate of schools for parents to select from. We could rely on the nature of markets to self-regulate schools like we rely on markets to regulate grocery stores.

We could quit arguing about things like how much is spent in the classroom, and we could actually focus on teaching children.

But the Kansas school education establishment doesn’t want that. That establishment fights every attempt to introduce even small elements of choice into Kansas.

By Bob Weeks

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