When Geography is Lame, When Geography is not Lame


I’ve posted on this issue before, but wanted to flesh out a couple of ideas re: geography and scale.

I was once on a panel with a very talented superintendent. I was going on about charter schools and I could tell he remained unconvinced.

So I told him that I didn’t think it was fair that, because of school district boundaries, children across the country were legally prevented from benefiting from his leadership.

I noted that a superintendent, unlike the CEO of a charter management organization, can’t open a new school in another city. I then suggested that if he led a charter management organization he could serve more at-risk children.

He granted me the point, though he has yet to launch a charter management organization. Perhaps one day.

Some more thoughts on the issue below.

When are geographical boundaries not lame? 

In a democracy, there are very valid reasons to utilize geographic boundaries. Geographic boundaries allow for communities to develop policies that are tailored to their distinct beliefs and values.

We are a large nation. States and cities are political vehicles that allow for societal differentiation. They also, ideally, increase government accountability and responsiveness.

It is my personal belief that we would be better off with more states (at least over a hundred). I think this would allow for more experimentation, more community actualization, and more effective government administration. Admittedly, I’m not sure how to get from here to there in terms of new state creation.

When are geographical boundaries lame? 

Geographical boundaries are useful for governance, but they are terrible for service delivery.

The more geographical boundaries you create, the more government monopolies you create.

When it comes to public schooling, a state with five hundred cities is a state with five hundred school board fiefdoms.

And, in most states, these fiefdoms don’t really have to compete with each other, as there tend to be strict residency requirements for public school enrollment. At most, wealthy people can move from one city to another.

The future of school systems

To summarize: geographical boundaries are good for governance but bad for service provision.

Of course, there is a way out of this problem: unbundle governance from operations.

Let local communities create the rules of public schooling (enrollment, school performance, etc.) – but let non-profit organizations, that are not bound by geographical boundaries, operate schools.

This would give us the best of both worlds: local, community governance that harnesses a national market of school providers.

KIPP is an exciting example of the future of school systems. KIPP schools currently serve 58,000 students, which puts them in the top 100 school systems in the country in terms of students served.

Yet, in New Orleans, for example, KIPP must follow our local rules: KIPP schools participate in our unified enrollment system, expulsions system, and statewide accountability system.

I think students in this country would be much better off if this was the norm.

When it comes to public schooling, we should govern locally and operate nationally.

Actually, given how many brilliant people run schools across the world, when it comes to public schooling we should govern locally and operate internationally.

Local communities deserve the best of what the world has to offer.

2 thoughts on “When Geography is Lame, When Geography is not Lame

  1. Doug Tuthill

    Neerav–Why do you restrict the running of public schools to nonprofit organizations? Seems like we should be concerned with quality and price, not corporate structure or tax status.

    1. nkingsl

      Sorry for slow reply. More out of pragmatism – they are very politically unpopular with the left and play into privatization – and to date they have not achieved that great of results.

      If they got better results, I’d be more willing to publicly advocate.


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