An “Abundance Agenda” Must Include K-12 Schooling

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Scarcity is a familiar concept to economists, but most Americans don’t need to crack open a textbook to understand its impact right now. Walking through my local grocery store, there are barren produce displays and freezers with only a fraction of the products they typically stock. And I’ve had to scour the greater Louisville, Kentucky region to find at-home COVID-19 tests for sale.

In a thought-provoking new piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson argues that the problem of scarcity isn’t just limited to grocery stores and pharmacies it’s a societywide challenge that we ought to address.

“Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change — but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right — but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care — but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.”

But there’s a significant sector missing from Thompson’s analysis of our scarcity challenge: K-12 education.

Public schooling is supposed to be a public good that provides equitable access to educational opportunities for all children, in the same way that public parks provide everyone with an opportunity to enjoy natural beauty in our communities.

For many families, however, access to a quality public education is an unfulfilled promise.

Scarcity in K-12 schooling is a much more opaque phenomenon than in higher education. We can easily monitor the ever-rising cost of college tuition, but most parents don’t pay tuition for K-12 schools. Instead, the “price” of attending public schools is embedded in rent or mortgage payments.

Affluent families have an abundance of educational options: they can afford to pay for tuition at private schools, buy a home in sought-after school districts, and provide their children with supplementary learning opportunities like tutoring, music lessons, and athletic programs.

Lower-income families face many more barriers to educational opportunity. Public schools are often their only educational option. As my colleagues and I showed in Priced Out of Public Schools, they also face scarcity in public schooling opportunities due to a combination of where affordable rental housing is located and how school district boundaries are drawn.

Thompson argues for a national “abundance agenda” to address problems created by scarcity. In K-12 education, that could mean an expansion of educational opportunities, particularly for lower-income families.

There are systemic ways to achieve abundance in educational opportunities. We could tackle reforms to update district boundaries more frequently — similar to how we engage in redistricting for legislative seats — to provide better, more equitable access to public K-12 schooling opportunities. Other efforts could expand access to nonpublic education options, as 18 states did in 2021.

Reformers can also expand educational opportunities within the public school system more incrementally through public charter schools. A recently-announced $750 million grant-making effort to support the expansion of public charter schools could serve as a catalyst for a broader reinvigoration of the charter sector, as my colleague Andy Rotherham notes in his latest for The 74.

For too long, families have not had access to the schooling options their children deserve. An “abundance agenda” for educational opportunity has the potential to garner support from the left, right, and center of our increasingly polarized nation and, more importantly, to provide children with equitable access to the public schools they deserve.