School Choice will mean more schools, fewer “warehouses”

class-240In 1930, there were approximately 248,000 public schools in the United States. In 2010 this number had shrunk to 99,000.

That’s a rather remarkable decline in the number of public schools, especially when you consider that the number of students enrolled in those schools has doubled, from 25 million in 1930 to about 50 million today.

That means the average number of students per school went from 100 students in 1930 to just over 500 in 2010. These are averages. Some schools have gotten much larger.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a child psychologist who thinks warehousing children in huge schools is good for their personal development. I don’t think you’ll find many teachers who think so, either.

Dr. Ann Sloan Devlin, Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College writes in Psychology Today:

“Research indicates that academic achievement is often better in small than in large schools. Parents tend to be more involved in small than in large schools, and many aspects of personal development are better in small than in large schools (e.g., sense of belonging, self concept) as are objective measures like attendance and dropout rate.”

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist is the discoverer of the “Dunbar Number.” He says: “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” Dunbar notes that this is a reality which can’t be changed; it is literally the way our minds are hardwired.

Further research has found that “even relatively small increases in the size of a group beyond 150 creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden.” One would guess that for children, this impact is magnified. And the schools for the vast majority of children in this country are way beyond the Dunbar Number.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2000 the median number of students per primary (elementary) school stood at 446. For middle schools it was 595 and for high school 752. But it is even worse. Remember that a large number of schools counted are very small; these numbers of students per school are in reality generally higher.

How many of the problems of our failing K-12 public education system can be traced back to the unintended damage done in these huge institutions, compounded year after year after year as a child moves along this assembly line? How many of the problems of society can be traced back to this same issue? How many of the uninvolved parents of today are simply children who were failed by the public education system of the past?

I’m a management consultant. So, I understand the operational and financial synergies of these consolidations. If a for-profit corporation were knowingly doing this level of damage to their children consumers, there would be hell to pay. Yet we stand idly by while significant life-long damage is being done to a tremendous number of kids.

I hear the response now: “John we agree. But creating more schools would cost too much money. We simply can’t afford it.”

That’s probably true if we keep doing things the way we are now. Here’s a shocking suggestion: Let’s change the way we do things.

The answer is right in front of us and doesn’t cost an extra dime. Of those 99,000 schools in 2010, almost 7,000 are new ones built in the past 10 years. The number of schools reached a nadir in 2000 and has been increasing ever since.

Want to know what is driving this increase in the number of schools, ending a 70-year trend? The same thing that’s lowering the number of pupils per school: school choice, giving parents more say in the education of their children. A simple thing like school choice has driven an increase in the number of public schools across the land, something I think we can all support.

If you want to end the very real, personal damage being done by huge schools across the land, support school choice. Most school districts are funded on a per-pupil basis. Why don’t we instead fund the parents? Why don’t we bring true school freedom to every child in the land? This one act will create tens of thousands of new schools. This one act is probably the only hope for ending the damaging reality these massive schools inflict on their students.

And for icing on the cake, it doesn’t cost an extra dime. A public school education is supposed to open up a life-time of opportunities for children, not damage their very psyche. Let’s fund the parents and solve this problem once and for all.

John Conlin

John Conlin is a self-employed management consultant who lives in Littleton, Colorado. He started End The Education Plantation because he’s seen first-hand the harm being caused by our nation’s schools and believes it’s time to do something about that. Join our email list for continuing updates. And get involved. We’re a grassroots organization.


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End the Education Plantation is a temporary nonprofit organization founded by John Conlin of Littleton, Colorado, because he’s seen first-hand the harm being caused by our nation’s schools. We are a grassroots organization with one and only one goal: Give every parent in America the opportunity to send their children to schools offering a quality education.

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