Thursday, February 7, 2008

Memo To OUSD: Thanks for Failing! Here's More Money!

People like to debate whether private enterprise is more efficient than government at a given task. This week's election results give us an example of why that is so often the case.

In private enterprise, if a business is failing, it will fail to attract investment capital. It will likely fail and be replaced by some other, more efficient company.

In government, if a program is failing, it attracts more investment capital.

It will likely continue to fail, sucking in more and more funding. Often, it will become a bastion of con-artists and sharks, who seek to get that money through carefully scripted appeals. These work because the government officials don't actually care whether the program is successful. They would rather get that next campaign contribution and play into the script so voters think they're doing something.

So it is with the Oakland Unified School District. OUSD would unquestionably rank as one of the worst school districts in the country, were there USNews rankings for such a thing. Oakland residents passed Measure G this week, ensuring the district $20M per year as a "thank you" for what will surely be continued failure.

The reasons for OUSD's performance are well documented and have nothing to do with underfunding. The school system performs poorly because middle-class-and-above parents largely send their kids to private schools. Same goes for all parents with gifted kids. The bottom line is OUSD is stuck with the lowest-performing kids.

This problem has to do with demographics and policies. We can't change demographics, so the right thing to do there is simply to accept the situation and compare OUSD to other similarly-situated districts.

Policies, however, can be changed to bring higher-performing kids back into the school system. Having smart kids in the public schools is good for everyone, as it can help change attitudes and role models for all kids.

Getting there requires a commitment by the school district to serving all Oakland residents, not just those in the lower-income areas. We need magnet schools. We need programs to remove kids who are either disruptive or violent. We need vocational programs to provide more appropriate education to kids who don't plan on going to college.

If OUSD won't make these kinds of changes, Oakland residents should get behind vouchers. At least then our kids would have real options for using the money.


  1. I'll bite on this one, if only to clarify the issues.

    Private enterprise and public social service agencies have different goals. The goal of the first is simply to make a profit, no matter in what field, whether selling books or drilling for oil, and if it does not succeed in doing so, it has no purpose. For this reason, as you point out, an unprofitable enterprise will fail to attract additional capital.

    Public agencies cannot be compared to this model. Whether we're talking about the OUSD, CALTRANS, HUD, or the CIA, the goal is NOT to make a profit, but to serve the public in a way that private enterprise cannot. By their nature, these agencies lose money--it's what they're supposed to do. Subsidized housing and public schools are an expense to taxpayers, not a source of income.

    Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the premise of your post is so flawed that it's hard not to take issue with it. "Failing" (ie., money-losing) public agencies will always attract more "capital" from tax revenue, because they need to buy instruments for school bands and fill potholes. That's the nature of the beast.

    If by "failing" in reference to the Oakland School System, you mean low test scores and the like, then it may be that that institution has not failed in the way you think it has, but that it is trying to deal with a very difficult segment of the population to educate.

    As the parent of a child in the Oakland Public Schools, I am aware of the struggles that take place in individual classrooms each day. My child has a straight A average and before the age of 10 was considering whether UCLA or USC would be the best options for college. There are many other, similar children in the OUSD, a testimonial to the system's success in spite of the enormous burden placed upon it by the demographic mix of Oakland.

    If parents like myself, with financial resources and a deep commitment to our children's education, considered the OUSD a failure, our children would not be in it.

    That the OUSD uses a great deal of taxpayer revenue in trying to do its job is moot. The school system does need more money--to buy trumpets and hire art teachers. Only those who are intimately familiar with an individual Oakland public school, however, can understand this.

  2. I completely agree that OUSD's primary issue is demographic.

    But it is still fair to ask the question, "Will OUSD perform better in its mission with more money than it would with less?"

    At this point, I believe the answer to this question is "no."

    I do believe OUSD could better serve its mission by moving some money around--starting a magnet school, for example.

    Now, on the issue of trumpets and supplies, I think you should consider the possibility that the school district purposely allows such shortages to persist in order to extort more money from taxpayers. OUSD has plenty of employees receiving six-figure salaries. That's what they're protecting, not your kids. But, they will undoubtedly put on a great show to make sure you think the opposite.

    Perhaps you should consider moving your kids to private school. Maybe then they'll be considering Stanford and Harvard and not UCLA and USC.

  3. [...] campaign in 2006, serves as vice-chair of the Measure B citizens oversight committee, worked on the Measure G campaign, and that she’s an energy analyst and adopted OUSD as a client pro-bono, and that if [...]