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On the compatibility of education choice and centralization

School choice makes national standards even more of a necessity — the more diverse the school options become, the more important it is to have standards for comparing the success of these schools, relative to their varied approaches.

Those who oppose the centralization of education (via national standards and federally regulated funding mechanisms) often argue that doing so will result in two things: first, a severe degradation of quality and, second, the limiting of school choice. In defense of the former argument, opponents of government-run schools argue that centralization would resemble a monopoly and, as such, there would be no incentive for improvement.  Relative to the notion that school choice would be limited, the same people argue that the proliferation of such “little laboratories of learning” as charter schools would cease. Therefore, some of the most promising reforms and innovations would be stymied.  

Matt Ridenour

I see things differently; I believe that centralizing standards and funding mechanisms is a prerequisite of success for the school choice movement.  Choice and centralization are not only compatible – they are necessary partners in the fight against educational inequality.

In beginning this conversation, it is important to note that the choice movement has its flaws. Some charter schools (the go-to option for those who choose to walk away from traditional public schooling) have been successful in stimulating powerful dialogue about education reform. The KIPP schools are an excellent example.

However, for some students, this notion of “choice” is a misnomer. Most charter schools hold lotteries each year to determine which students will “win” a seat. What happens to those students who do not win the lottery? In a nation where the inconsistent and unequal funding of schools is a legitimate problem, many of these students are forced back to their under-resourced districts, or decide to drop out altogether. No student should have to make that sort of choice. 

For this reason, the school choice movement needs to be supported by centralized standards and centralized funding mechanisms. It is in this way that choice and centralization are compatible.  

Common standards necessary

To be specific, school choice makes national standards even more of a necessity — the more diverse the school options become, the more important it is to have standards for comparing the success of these schools, relative to their varied approaches. These standards can be loose enough to provide freedom for their fulfillment, all the while guaranteeing that all students (no matter their placement in a traditional public or charter school) are provided with an excellent education full of the perquisites that would make them “college ready.” If all varieties of schools are held accountable by common standards, this will engender the incentives and competition necessary to guard against the aforementioned degradation of school quality.

Those who argue that centralization will yield a sub-par product must also be reminded that the quality of schools within individual states varies wildly, and is significantly dependant on the wealth of the residents in any given district. As evidence, take a look around the state of Minnesota: According to U.S. News and World Report, the top schools in the Twin Cities are those with substantial tax bases from wealthy residents – Mahtomedi and Edina, to name the first two. Mahtomedi has an estimated median household income of over $90,000 a year. Is it any surprise that they have the best schools?

Those who reside in wealthy districts with healthy, successful schools often drive the anti-centralization argument. Their fear is not that centralization will yield a sub-par product, but rather that it will require them to share the wealth, as a centralized funding mechanism might require the same amount of money be attached to each student, regardless of his or her geographic location.

A recipe for fairness and equity

The retort, of course, is that sharing the wealth limits one’s ability to maintain high standards at already successful schools. But is success at the cost of the underprivileged worth the risk? Providing equalized funding for schools via a centralized funding scheme is not a recipe for disaster; it’s a recipe for fairness and equity.

Nonetheless, Minnesota has made inequality an acceptable component of its policy for funding education. In Skeen v. State of Minnesota (1993), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that while there is a “fundamental right to a basic level of funding” for schools, that right does not require equality of spending among districts. Therefore, wealthier districts with significant amounts of money (much of it derived from property taxes) have better schools because they are free to do so, while students in poorer districts helplessly find themselves in under-resources schools. And without a centralized funding mechanism for evening out the distribution of dollars, it will stay this way.

With this said, funding public schools in an equitable manner is not only an issue of justice, but one of providing healthy competition. Funding public schools equitably in order to compete with charter schools makes them both better. Under a centralized education system, it is fully possible to continue and allow the proliferation of charters as long as they honor federal standards. The appeal of such “little laboratories of learning” is not in the content they teach, but rather in how they deliver and explore that content. 

Same subjects, different vehicles

For example, the Twin Cities is home to several charter schools with a foreign-language focus, including the Twin Cities German Immersion School. Is their student population still learning math? Yes. Are they still learning American history? Yes. The difference is that that they are doing so through the vehicle of another language.

Providing centralized standards and equal funding for public schools only strengthens the choice movement. In doing so, students have two legitimate options for learning – their traditional neighborhood school or a nearby charter school, all of whom are providing a quality education because they are held to the same standards generated by a single, centralized authority.

As a result, low-income students no longer have to place their hopes for an adequate, well-funded education in a lottery. This makes centralization and choice not only compatible, but also natural allies in the fight against education inequality.

Matt Ridenour is a high-school teacher in Minneapolis and a doctoral candidate in education at Hamline University.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by John Appelen on 11/20/2013 - 05:33 pm.

    Equal Funding?

    “equal funding for public schools ”

    Currently the low income community traditional public schools have some of the highest funding per student. Please explain more about what you envision as “equal funding”.

    At G2A we have discussed this many times, and it seems funding isn’t the problem. It is the fact that parents have to care enough about their child and their education to opt into Privates and Charters. And the Privates and Charters can truly expel disruptive or lazy students. Whereas the traditional Publics get every kid, and do not have the option
    of expelling them.

    As for Common Core Reqts, I support them and it is my current post. What timing…

    • Submitted by Matt Ridenour on 11/20/2013 - 10:45 pm.

      In response…


      You’re right, some traditional public schools in low income communities spend quite a bit of money per student. However, the operative word there is “some”.

      As Linda Darling-Hammond has noted, spending on students at predominantly white, wealthy schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by students of color from low income families.This is reality. Not necessarily in every low-income city, but in many of them. There is a real and documented disparity here – one that has been justified by our courts (as noted in the article).

      While guaranteeing equality in terms of dollars spent is not a panacea, it certainly is just and aids in student success. We can’t forget that there are indeed students who suffer from an under-resourced education.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/21/2013 - 08:49 am.

        Send Us More Money and We’ll Fix It

        Based on this summary of Linda’s work it looks like the same old message. Send us more money, solve poverty, stop measuring and we educators will fix it. Since the 1960’s, the tax payers have continued to send huge amounts of money into Education in general, and poor communities in specific, yet poverty and the academic gap still persists.

        Since I am a PDCA type of guy, how do you see sending more money without additional accountability helping?

        Also, do you have a specific source that shows this inequitable funding? In MN I do not think it is a problem since the city schools often get Title 1 and additional State funds.

        Of course a lot of that unfortunately has to go to extra security, drug counselors, special ed, and other non-standard education related areas. Which Wayzata and other suburban schools don’t need as much of because of their different community and student body.

        • Submitted by Matt Ridenour on 11/21/2013 - 02:25 pm.

          Money isn’t a panacea, but….

          Let me begin by making it clear that all of the data I’m about to present is from one of two sources: 2012 Mpls Public Schools budget, 2012 Edina Public Schools budget.

          In 2012, Minneapolis had about 32,000 K-12 students. Edina had around 8,000. Minneapolis’ budget was $517,409,000. Edina’s was $117,523,710. These numbers include all revenue sources. So, in terms of spending, it appears that Minneapolis spends about $16,000 per student while Edina spends about $15,000. But think about this…

          These numbers include spending on pupil support, instructional support and special education services. Minneapolis spent a whopping 41% of their budget on those things, whereas Edina spent 24%. Compare that to site and building spending: Edina spent 20% of their budget on maintenance and improvements, whereas Minneapolis spent 8%.

          What’s the story here? Students in Minneapolis need more special services, which takes dollars away from two things: Students who don’t need those services, and maintaining a school environment conducive to learning. All told, Edina is spending more money on more students while Minneapolis is spending quite a bit of money on a few students, all the while maintaining less than adequate learning environments (and I know this personally).

          This represents a funding disparity – more money is needed to adequately fund the buildings, programs and people that are being neglected because of the need for special services. The question regarding whether or not money solves problems in education can’t be answered until there is funding equality. Only when everyone is on the same playing field can we compare apples to apples.

          It would be interesting to do this same exercise with Mahtomedi, but I couldn’t readily access any budget numbers.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/21/2013 - 06:10 pm.

            I’ll need to do some research

            I’ll hopefully reply within a day or so, probably at the top level.

            The idea that Mpls gets more money per student, and yet is unfairly “underfunded” is an interesting concept.

            I wonder how much “integration” funding would be enough to overcome all the social issues in those communities…

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/21/2013 - 06:16 pm.

            Many Many Factors

            I am not sure education will do it by itself… Here is a list of factors that we generated…

            There is a lot to overcome in highly poor urban areas. Personally I like the HCZ method.

            Unfortunately that requires additional funding and getting rid of those “Union protections/rules”. Probably not likely to happen soon.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/22/2013 - 08:18 am.

            One more quick thought…

            I once did an analysis of my district (Robbinsdale 281) and found that my healthy “well behaved” smart children were probably only receiving ~$7,000 in spend. The less lucky students were probably receiving $11,000 to $15,000 in spend. And the special needs kid were receiving anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000+ in spend.

            How does this work into your equity model? Should I be frustrated that my daughters aren’t receiving their fair share. I mean they are placed in larger classes (ie better behaved), they require little counseling, etc. In fact, ever since they were young they have been asked to sit near more disruptive children, since they were such quiet rule followers who provided a stabilizing influence.

            Equity is definitely going to be hard to define…

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