Forced Participation: Public Education’s Fatal Flaw

The high school redesign exercise in Portland serves as a reminder of why top-down solutions are often doomed to fail. How could anyone except those at the top propose closing a popular and successful school like Benson Polytechnic? And how could anyone force families back inside the stifling brick walls of an unpopular and unsuccessful high school like Jefferson?

Fortunately, two individuals have recently come forward with surprisingly out-of-the-box statements that could open the door to some truly constructive solutions, at least for the students.

The Oregonian’s David Sarasohn penned a column earlier this month that cut through the obfuscation and identified the key element of the redesign plan: force. He rightly explained that those in charge of the Portland school system are attempting to fix the problems of a school like Jefferson simply by forcing those who live near it to send their kids into this perennially failing school. The plan would allow few transfers for desperate parents seeking a better education for their children.

Sarasohn then states what he apparently sees as powerful truth:

“This is, after all, America, and you can’t force families to send their children to any school.”

Of course, parents with means can’t be forced, because they can afford private education or they can pick up and move close to a better public school. But you can force kids without means into the failing brick buildings near their homes. You shouldn’t, but you can.

Sarasohn’s insights followed on the heels of a revelation from the superintendent of the state’s second-largest public school district, Salem-Keizer. Sandy Husk was testifying on May 26 before the Senate Interim Committee on Education and General Government in Salem. She favored a possible law that would allow school districts to opt out of their local Education Service District (ESD) and provide ESD-related services to their students in other ways. The money previously allocated to the ESD would pass through directly to the district.

Dr. Husk told the senators that her district could be trusted with funding that is currently being kept by the ESD. She told them that “one size does not fit all,” and that while the current ESD model may work for smaller districts, it does not work well for hers. She said that local communities should have more say in how their tax dollars are being spent.

Then, just as Sarasohn recognized that the key element of the Portland redesign plan is force, Dr. Husk said the current ESD system is based on “forced participation.” She used this analogy to make her point:

“Imagine walking into a grocery store where you would prefer not to shop because they don’t really sell what you want. But when you enter the store you find that your food budget has already been given directly to the store. So you put certain things in your cart, whether you want them or not. You don’t find out what they’re going to cost until you’re almost at the checkout line or all the way through. When you go through the checkout line they keep 10% of the food budget right off of the top. And the rest of the food budget comes to you in change provided that you can prove that you’re going to spend it wisely.

“Forced participation in the ESD puts the onus on the school district to prove that they can provide services. We believe that the onus should be on the ESD to prove that they provide good services at reasonable costs….

“Rather than forced participation, I believe we should be able to opt in or out….”

She clearly wants choice of service providers for her district, but what about choice of education providers for the kids?

Even ardent public school supporters are coming to realize that forcing families to attend certain schools, or forcing schools to buy services they don’t want from other educational bureaucracies, is the wrong approach. Instead of continuing to study more top-down planning solutions, districts should consider something radically different, like the idea promoted in 1996 by then Portland school superintendent Jack Bierwirth. He suggested turning every district school into a charter school. Charters are still public schools, but they offer real choices to those who often have few or none.

Rather than taking choices away, as Portland is contemplating right now, more choices will incentivize parents to stay within the system. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be surprised when more of them begin to leave or to send their kids to private schools.

As more public school supporters realize that force is wrong, we have the opportunity to improve education from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. The choice is ours.


Superintendent Sandy Husk’s statement to the Senate committee can be heard beginning about 21 minutes into this audio.


Steve Buckstein is founder and senior policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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  • Anonymous

    …..”like the idea promoted in 1996 by then Portland school superintendent Jack Bierwirth. He suggested turning every district school into a charter school. Charters are still public schools, but they offer real choices to those who often have few or none.”…..

    A great idea that the unions will back with enthusiasm. Implementation should start today.

  • Britt Storkson

    The use of force with regards to education is a problem: Forcing taxpayers to pay for overpriced and underperforming schools, for one. Also forcing students to go to school and then booting them out for a time if they caused problems never made any sense to me.

    Education should be considered a privilege, not a right. In many developing countries (and in this country up until about 50 years ago) education is/was considered a privilege and students WANTED to be there because not everybody had that opportunity.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    I think when it is at the point that the superintendant of the second largest school district in the state sees school choice in a favorable light that says a lot.

    People are becoming less and less enthralled with the idea that if their school is failing, their kids education should be sacrificed to prop up the jobs the school provides.

    I also think that the argument that throwing money at the problem will do anything. We have very expensive schools with very well paid teachers and exorbitantly priced staff. When we are paying guys $40k a year to push a mop, clearly the schools are flush with money.

    Other solutions that would be good:

    Get rid of the Education degree. It is clearly nonsense and would seem to be an opposing indicator to success – home schooled kids and private school kids regularly outperform public school students. The former requires no education degree, the latter often does not.

    Require a degree in the subject being taught. If a person has a math degree or an English degree it is a better indicator for love of the subject than an education degree ever could be. I have met far too many teachers teaching math who couldn’t pass a basic trig test.

    Eliminate ESL certificates. These budget busters are a total scam. Teachers all too often get the ESL certificate simply as a pay booster, whether it is necessary for their job or not.

    Eliminate seniority as the basis for pay. Assessing teacher performance isn’t the easiest thing in the world but it is possible. If remedial instruction in higher grades is constantly required, then you know the teachers in those subjects in the lower grades have some splain’n to do.

    Get rid of school lunch – if the parents cant throw a sandwich down their kids throats kill them.

  • Bob Clark

    In Portland the brick and mortar schools also serve non school functions such as play grounds for surrounding neighborhoods. This adds to the difficulties for Public Portland School District (PPSD) to make changes, such as closing Jefferson or anyother school. So, PPSD is effectively charged with maintaining assets it doesn’t actually have full control to manage to highest financial benefit. For example, the school district has been sitting on abandon Washington Highschool property for three decades now with no ability to sell this asset because of the political clout against it in the surrounding neighborhood. If this surrounding neighborhood wants to control the use of this property, then it should step up and pay for this property. But politicians at cityhall shouldn’t allow this neighborhood to run rough shot over a valuable school district asset without offering anything in exchange except political obstinance. Then too, if there is a private or charter school entity willing to lease this property or other such property, the PPSD should not be allowed to block it as permitted by the Oregon state legislature, whose main motivation is to no doubt protect union jobs.

    So, what we have is land use and labor policies trumphing the efficient management of schools in Portland. Better to ease these policies, I should think.

    • Anonymous

      Terrifically insightful. Thanks, Bob.

  • Bad Man

    Portland public schools are the reason parents who care about their children’s education send them to private schools. On lt the poor and the clueless would send their kids to schools in such a dysfunctional system.

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