What’s in a name? Apparently, to a government school monopoly, it’s everything.
Last month, Pittsburgh Public Schools announced the district would be dropping the word “Public” from its name in order to avoid the negative connotation often associated with public schools. A paid marketing consultant helped develop the plan, which will also result in renaming the individual schools themselves.
While a “public” outcry has caused the district to reconsider the policy, the scheme serves as a powerful reminder of the upside-down priorities of public schools-and of government monopolies in general.
It’s no wonder why Pittsburgh’s schools suffer in public perception. While the district spends more than $12,000 per student on operating expenditures alone, only 40 percent of its high school students are proficient in mathematics. District students also perform below the national average on the SAT, ACT, and Advanced Placement tests. So one would think the best way for Pittsburgh schools to improve public perception would be to increase student’s learning, not to hire expensive consultants to rebrand the schools.
The district’s policy is reminiscent of a decision made by the United States Postal Service in 2006. Faced with customer complaints about lengthy wait times, it came up with a novel “solution”-removing the clocks from post office walls. Rather than streamlining its processes to increase efficiency, the postal service merely tried to shield customers from the knowledge that they were receiving subpar service.
Government monopolies don’t have to do the hard work of competing, and they don’t have to make any substantive changes when they’re failing. Public schools and the U.S. Postal Service are perfect examples of this mindset.
The private sector, on the other hand, cannot afford to resist meaningful change. Imagine the results if an obsolete factory decided to paint its exterior walls rather than installing up-to-date machinery. Would consumers be any happier to purchase their defective products just because they were made in a prettier facility? Private companies must respond to consumers’ desires for better products or shut down.
Public schools don’t face the same dilemma. As a government monopoly, they enjoy a captive group of consumers regardless of product quality. Unsatisfied parents and students have little recourse but to uproot and move to a new district, where they are still customers of an education monopoly.
The public school establishment resists meaningful change-such as school choice, incentive pay, and financial accountability-because the lack of competition allows them to maintain the status quo. It’s much easier to rename a school than it is to implement dramatically positive, if at times uncomfortable, reforms.
Pittsburgh Public Schools’ new-name theory is not unprecedented. After taking over China in 1949, Communists renamed the country “The People’s Republic of China”-a mere pretense, since the new leaders certainly didn’t serve the people. Shortly after, government control over private property and the economy resulted in reduced production and widespread starvation.
But nearly 60 years later, China’s embrace of capitalism and the effects of competition have made it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
China’s leaders realized that significant-not superficial-change was needed for the country to succeed. They introduced competition, and the results speak for themselves. When will our public schools do the same?
Jamie Story is an education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.