Saturday, May 29, 2010

Schools, the Choice for Charlotte (An Open Letter to the Board of County Commissioners)

"By...[selecting] the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use if not sought for and cultivated."
--Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782

To the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners:

Most of us have seen the inspiring movie Stand and Deliver, the true story of Jaime Escalante, a teacher who did the seemingly-impossible when he built one of the country’s finest calculus programs in East L.A. Who among us, if given the opportunity to go back in time and sit in one of Escalante’s classes, would say no? Few, I’d bet.

What the movie doesn’t tell you is what it couldn’t: After it was made, a significant amount of bureaucratic wrangling caused Escalante to be pushed out of his position, and the program that he built collapsed in his absence. The opportunity to see the extraordinary in his former school is now gone (So is Escalante, incidentally, who died in March of cancer, the medical bills that he could not afford paid by funds raised by his former students and Edward James Olmos, who played him in the film).

I am the father of three children at Smith Academy of International Languages (Next year, my wife and I will have five children there, and the year after that, six). It’s a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) magnet located at 1600 Tyvola Rd (near the intersection with South Blvd). It recently tied with Davidson IB as the second-best magnet school in the United States, according to the Magnet Schools of America, a 501(c)(3) education non-profit.

This top-ranking school is extremely diverse. Every race, major religion, neighborhood, and socioeconomic group (including ~40% who receive free/reduced lunch) in Mecklenburg County is represented. It is often compared to a miniaturized United Nations (but without the problems that mar the full-sized version), because its students are taught their subjects in a foreign language beginning in Kindergarten, and many of their teachers are highly trained native-language speakers in the United States on work visas.

Due to budget cuts which are driving changes in busing, however, Smith faces the risk of significant attrition next year, particularly among its economically disadvantaged students.

My concern is that if this happens, it will no longer truly be a school that (to borrow from Jefferson) is fully able to cultivate “those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich”. Quite a few youths of genius will probably leave Smith over the summer.

If enough students attrite, the principal, Ynez Olshausen, will be forced to lay off a number of staff (proportional to the number of students who leave), and many who are in America on visas sponsored by CMS will return to their countries of origin. Once Smith ranks swell again (unfortunately with a more gentrified population than it has now), Principal Olshausen will be unable to rehire the masterful teachers who are no longer in this country. (See Appendix A for an explanation of why significant attrition poses a different sort of threat to Smith than to a traditional school.)

This is not an inevitable outcome; it is (at least to some degree) avoidable without incurring significant additional cost, but this will require the active cooperation of parents, administrators, and politicians.

If we continue with the current plan, we will be sacrificing our most vulnerable children by streamlining busing in a way that will force many students to leave. The school leadership team (SLT) has proposed some common-sense solutions that will work (See Appendix B for details of the busing plan and the SLT’s primary proposal). They’re cost-neutral and scalable across the district for all county-wide magnets (if all magnets go to the new busing plan assigned to Smith at some point in the future).

I understand the challenges that decision-makers face. After years of imprudent decisions by everyday citizens (from every economic stratum) and politicians (from both major political parties), there are budget deficits at every level of government, and you must find places to cut the budgetary fat.

There is certainly some in education, but budget cuts must be done carefully and, when possible, with the cooperation and the fullest level of vetting that can be obtained from educators, administrators, and parents at individual schools.

The larger a government (or school district) becomes, the more unwieldy it can be. The more responsibility and authority is given to the central command structure, the more control they must necessarily exert over their areas of responsibility. This is the nature of centralized planning and control.

The danger here is, of course, that bureaucracy will rule, and it often does. In 2002, Reason Magazine ran a great profile of Stand and Deliver’s Jaime Escalante, and if you have five minutes and would like to know the story behind the movie (and its sad epilogue), please read it, and ask yourself if, by ignoring the improbability of its success, we’re doing to Smith what administrators in Los Angeles did to Escalante.

The article can be found here:

I’m asking you to do three things, as soon as possible: 1) to find cuts elsewhere in the Mecklenburg budget so that CMS cuts do not have to be so severe, 2) to encourage the superintendent’s office to listen to the SLT of Smith and other schools and be reasonable about busing concessions, and 3) to seek innovative (even radical) solutions to county problems so that we do not fail in what should be our top priority: keeping our good schools as good as they are and fix those that are failing so that we are a best-in-nation school district.

Schools: The Top Priority of Every Well-Run Municipality

One is hard-pressed to find anything more important to the vitality and health of a city than its K-12 education (Safety is probably a close contender, but a safe city is the outcome of effective policies and programs, including education, not their driver).

Good school systems attract young families with children (and businesses), and bad ones drive them away.

In addition, the more well-educated a generation is, the more it can contribute to the community when it enters the workforce. This is the positive “neighborhood effect” that provides the justification for some members of a community paying to educate other members through taxation. (See Milton Friedman in “The Role of Government In Education”.)

Now, how many times have you heard someone say, “I moved to Charlotte because the public golf courses are so darn lovely,” or, “I’m a huge NASCAR fan, and I just had to live in the city that houses its taxpayer-funded museum,” or, “I really like the giant green recycling bins equipped with Radio Frequency ID tags that every resident gets and the invasive RFID-tracking system that’s probably pretty expensive,” or, “The huge, indoor, publicly-owned water park that I can take my kid to for basically the same price as a for-profit one is what drew me here,” or, “I just had to live in a city with a professional basketball team that plays in a building built largely using taxes that tourists are forced to pay but named after a cable company”? This list could go on for pages and pages (and then, probably, some more pages).

How many people, on the other hand, moved to Charlotte because they like the school system or fell in love with a specific school? I imagine that that number is sizable. (Smith Academy is, by the way, such a school. We have testimonials from families who moved here specifically to attend Smith and families who can’t bear to relocate--even for a better job opportunity--because they would have to leave Smith.)

Now, some corollary questions: How many families moved here in spite of the fact that they dislike the schools (and will leave as soon as they’re able)? How many families have already moved to Union or Cabarrus or to South Carolina because they had a bad home school and preferred the ones in neighboring counties? How many families will move away (even if only to another county) if CMS schools get worse? How many international businesspeople will be disillusioned by Charlotte’s failure to reward the success of one of its best schools? How many of them will move away?

And when they do, what will be the impact to tax revenues? An unintended consequence of budget cuts that damage the quality of a district’s education (and not all cuts fall into this category) is that they will lead to increased budget cuts down the line because of a smaller tax base.

If CMS is able, on the other hand, to offer better schools and more choices, I guarantee that more families will come here and stay. We need to close failing schools, open new schools, improve effective schools, and copy the programs and policies at our best schools.

A working, large-scale school choice program would be a boon to Charlotte, and it doesn’t have to be an expensive one. We can attract families, grow the tax base organically, and (at the same time) allow those youths of genius (and their families), rich and poor and in between, to self-select into the best available schools.

The choice is yours.

Smith Academy As a Model School: The Global Market, Global Competitiveness, and the Future

“Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for... [T]he countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
– Barack Obama

“Global competitiveness starts here.” - Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

The American economy is not in great shape, and it will take a long time to recover from the current mess that we, our parents, and our grandparents have created. Fiscal responsibility isn’t a watchword of the federal government (or the state, for that matter), and the national debt is on the rise. In 1980, it was 26% of the GDP. A couple of years ago, it was ~40%. Right now it’s 53% of GDP. By 2020, it’s projected to be ~90% of GDP. This will have a significant impact on the value of money and the quality of our lives, and it’s unlikely that we will fix it any time soon; if we do, it will be by increasing the freedom of markets and increasing international trade (while cutting government spending, which is, obviously, far outside of the scope of this letter). We need more productive citizens.

Religious extremism is on the rise worldwide, and rather than working more cooperatively, the last decade has seen an increase in antagonism between nations and ethnic groups. We need more enlightened citizens.

As manufacturing continues to move to developing countries, American workers must have skills that are increasingly managerial and service-related (e.g. finance), or we will be an empire in decline, rather than a nation that continues to rise. We need more well-educated citizens.

In order to be better-off and to increase global prosperity and peace, America must be a leader in an increasingly-global, increasingly-free market. Increased trade with other countries will create wealth here and abroad. The more nations rely on one another for trade, the more they see one another as vital partners and the less they treat one another as antagonists. If we are to overcome religious fundamentalism and excessive nationalism, it will be through finding positive outcomes to nonzero-sum games (e.g. economics, education).

This is another way of saying that we need to work with others to make things better for both, rather than working at cross purposes and making them worse. Having a cross-cultural, international perspective helps. So does understanding, fundamentally, that cultures vary and that different cultures speak different languages. So does being able to communicate fluently in multiple languages.

This is all well and good, but it is all theoretical, one may object. One elementary school in one city in one county in one state cannot change the direction of history. Perhaps. Probably. However, Smith provides an exceptional model for how American schools can and should function. Not all schools, perhaps, but some schools, schools where parents and students have committed voluntarily to a multilingual education.

A Smith Academy education is a global education, and it works. Test scores are great. Every key metric is significantly higher than CMS and state averages. Why aren’t we using it as a model for other schools? Let’s just take a moment to do a thought experiment: What if we opened two more language schools in Charlotte? What if we sent a delegation of educators and/or board members to conferences to promote the success of Smith? It wouldn’t revolutionize education, but it might encourage other places to try it. Maybe we could spawn a handful other language academies.

This wouldn’t solve all of the problems that we, as a nation and as a species, will face, but it might make things incrementally better, here and there. It might make Charlotte better off in 20 years, or North Carolina, a bit. If other schools copy us, it will definitely make a difference, perhaps a significant one.

Let’s not go in the wrong direction.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are giving a select few individuals a competitive advantage in the global market. That’s exactly what schools should be doing, but more should be doing it, and for more students. It is your job to promote the most vital cause of local government: education. And it is my job (and the job of all parents) to take the tools that you give us and help our children craft an extraordinary future.

How To Save Charlotte Before It Needs Saving*

Spend money on essentials, cut spending on non-essentials, and keep taxes as low as possible.

Anything that the private sector can do better than city or county government should be privatized. Examine the possibility of privatizing school transportation, for example, by opening it up to bidding to create competition. Auction off the public golf courses, public tennis courts, some of the public parks.

It’s okay to make radical proposals. It won’t hurt to look at radical solutions. When a county has a multi-year pay freeze for its employees, it’s time to look at where the money is going. It’s time for each of you to spend money in the right places and only in the right places. No pet projects, no more blatant waste. No more athletic corporate welfare. Pay off current commitments to team owners and don't make any more. Ever.

Cutting funding to schools within a month of the grand opening gala of a publicly-funded NASCAR hall of fame, of all things, is a great example of things going incredibly wrong before our eyes.

The temptation will arise (if it hasn’t already) to raise taxes. While outside the scope of this letter, this too is a mistake, unless it is absolutely necessary, because low taxes, like good schools, attract people and businesses.

A future ghost town is one that raises taxes to pay for things that the private sector can provide more effectively, especially if these expenditures continue while cuts are made to its most essential services: education, public safety, victims’ support services, and the like.

Will Charlotte be the next Cleveland or the next Houston? Will we decline into despair or grow into greatness? That is an outcome of decisions that you, the city council, and other elected officials will make.


Thank you for your leadership. Government serves many important functions, and I appreciate how hard you work to balance the needs of Mecklenburg County’s many residents and businesses.

Please let’s put first things first. As President Obama said, the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Likewise, the cities, counties, and metro areas that out-teach us today (and use tax receipts more prudently) will also out-compete us tomorrow, and if we become a city in decline, our children will migrate away from Charlotte for better opportunities just as many of us migrated here for them.

Gregory Garrison

Appendix A: Class Configurations at Smith and the Challenges Created By Attrition

Smith is unique because it is a language immersion school. A brand-new student enters Kindergarten with a commitment to learn the majority of his/her school subjects in a foreign language (See “Magnet Program Expectations Agreement – World Language”, attached, that parents must sign). English is taught in parallel to the students learning Asian languages, and as students come closer to their EOGs, those in European languages begin taking English as well.

If a student above the first grade attrites (above the sixth grade for middle school), s/he cannot be replaced, except by a new student who is fluent in the target language.

In other words, we can’t backfill if we lose students. This is because children must be grade-level fluent in another language in order to keep up (since almost all subjects are taught in a foreign language). Since teachers are allocated based on the number of students, a drop in student enrollment will lead to a matching drop in teachers employed. It is unclear what percentage will leave when the new busing plan is implemented; I’ll use 25% to make the math easy.

If, say, 25% of third grade students attrite, a traditional school would have the opportunity to save 25% by laying off 25% of the third-grade teachers. For a school with eight third-grade classes, then, 25% attrition would create the capacity to lay off two teachers and one assistant (if an assistant is shared between classes), a savings that maintains the same level of efficiency (student:teacher ratio).

At Smith, however, there are two classes for each language. In effect, this means that it is equivalent to four small elementary schools and five small middle schools that share some resources, because languages cannot be combined to make a new class. So, to use our 25% example again, let’s say that 25% of the third-graders at Smith attrite and that this is uniform across the languages. We lose 12 of our 48 French students, 12 of our 48 Chinese students, 12 of 48 German, and 12 of 48 Japanese. Now there are four programs that are running at 75% capacity, and no teachers can be laid off without botching the programs.

With cuts of this sort, we would have two choices: 1) Create a class with 36 students for one teacher (A 36:1 ratio is, obviously, absurd for elementary students) or 2) Consolidate classes by grouping grades creatively (but sub-optimally, from a learning perspective, and counter to the current learning model at Smith)– in other words, to continue our example above, we might have one second grade class for each language, one third grade class for each language, and one combination second-third grade class (or three combination second-third grade classes). It is unclear how students could be fairly allocated into these three theoretical mixed-grade classes.

In either of these scenarios, Smith must reinvent how it educates students, even though its current model delivers outstanding performance. Expecting Smith to continue its current high level of EOG performance (to use one example) under these conditions is an exercise in wish thinking (which is generally, though not universally, frowned upon for adults).

In addition, as I mentioned earlier, either will also lead to a number of Smith teachers, who are in the United States on work visas with a goal of citizenship, having to go back to their country of origin. Considering the investment that CMS has made in these new Americans (or, technically, potential Americans), willfully implementing a policy that undoes their path to citizenship is a gross waste of dollars that CMS has already spent helping them to become great teachers and freshly-minted national resources.

It is not an overstatement to say that this presents an existential threat to Smith. I have a hard time imagining Smith being able to manage 36:1 student:teacher ratios or the grade-combo classes mentioned above. How else can it manage?

If we change the transportation for Smith so much that students must leave, we will break faith with the families who entered Smith, trusting that their children could reasonably expect to complete the program, and with those teachers whose visas we’ve sponsored and who give so much to teach our children.

Appendix B: Transportation Changes and the Economically Disadvantaged

In order to save money on transportation, CMS has come up with a new busing plan. Currently, students get curbside service at their home. This is obviously very expensive (to the point of being wasteful) for an all-county magnet, so there is a five-mile radius drawn around Smith.

Students within the five-mile radius will continue to get curbside service, or they can choose to go to a stop shared with other parents. Students outside the five-mile radius can drive to a shared stop within the five miles or go to their assigned shuttle stop outside the radius. From what I understand, the five-mile boundary is due to state reimbursement for students who are bused within five miles of their school (or something along those lines).

There are nine shuttle stops outside the five-mile radius, located at elementary and middle schools. The Transportation Department has done a great job looking at our options and has created shuttle stops everywhere that the bus stop hours do not overlap with school drop-off/pick-up times. There will be an off-duty police officer (or security guard of some sort) posted at each official shuttle stop.

The problem with this plan is that it is very hard for some parents to get to the shuttle stops, whether it’s because of distance or lack of transportation.

The SLT has proposed “auxiliary stops”, which would be parent-organized (like the consolidated stops within the five miles) and would be located along the route traveled by the shuttle-stop buses. Because the stops would be located along routes and would be policed by parents who commit to keeping their child’s bus stop safe, they would not add appreciably to the CMS budgets. Although they would add a slight layer of complexity to transportation, a parent-organized auxiliary stop system would, in principal, be usable for every all-county magnet if the rest go to Smith’s busing plan in the future.

* N.B. The views in this letter (particularly concerning privatization, taxation, and corporate welfare) are mine alone and should not be taken as opinions or policy recommendations held by a majority (or even a plurality) of parents, administrators, teachers, etc at or connected to Smith.

This is a slightly truncated version of a letter that I recently wrote to the County Commissioners. Some of the material appeared in a previous letter to the Board of Education. While I recognize that some of my ideas in this letter are naturally more controversial than those presented in the first letter, I wanted to voice my concern about mis-spending by local government and to point out that there are many luxurious government services that can be cut before changing the way that we educate, given the potentially harmful long-term consequences associated with the latter. I've borrowed liberally from analysis published by the Reason Foundation and owe an intellectual debt of gratitude to Nick Gillespie, the editor-in-chief of and I strongly recommend their documentary Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey.


  1. The effects of our political priorities and subsequent budgetary shortfalls are catastrophic. We see jingoism and ill advised military adventures in parallel with inept regulatory agencies creating an impending economic collapse leaving our country without proper economic resources to administer our basic and fundamental institutions necessary for this once strong nation to prosper and produce excellence in various fields of business, science, and the arts and humanities. We must address our National Priorities to solve our serious dilemma now.

  2. I agree completely. One of the reasons that states and municipalities are in so much trouble is that unlike the federal government, they are unable to print more money when they run out, and most have been overspending with increasing severity in recent years. Without significant changes to the way that we tax and spend (including, to your point, defense), we will be facing severe hyperinflation in a few years. The problem, as I see it, is that few politicians are willing to offend their base, especially the graying population (or seem unpatriotic by suggesting massive defense cuts) and won't go out on a limb to dismantle or reform expensive programs. Defense, social security, and medicare/medicaid represent ~60% of the budget, so most of the big-deal spending cuts that politicians make (or even suggest) are largely cosmetic (This is going to get worse with the new health care "reform" package). Although personally optimistic about my future (and that of my children), I don't see any obvious, workable solutions to the coming fiscal catastrophe.

  3. Greg as always you astound me. I want to be your publicist when you are forced to run for school board or better. Good piece. I am going to post it on Facebook. Cheers...Eric