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Too Little of a Good Thing

By William Newell

The recent Portland School Board decision to expand enrollment at Benson Polytechnic High School exemplifies an odd mindset within the public education system. The board’s decision allows Benson to increase its enrollment from 821 to 850 students, due to public outcry over the limit. Benson was designed to handle 2,000 students, yet the school educates fewer than half that number because of district policy.

When businesses provide customers with quality products and services, they attract even more customers. Expansion is a sign of success, and businesses profit from it. Sadly, the same can’t be said of public education. When a public school succeeds, its enrollment gets capped. Its success is considered a drain on other schools: If a school is in high demand, students will flock there and neglect their “neighborhood” schools. Yet, this is the very point of having a market. Poorly performing businesses fail and successful ones rise, but everyone benefits from success.

When schools fail to meet students’ needs, students should be able to attend schools that do. This is why the Benson situation is absurd. The school board shouldn’t limit quality public education. When Portland parents want more seats in schools like Benson, the board should find ways to give them more of the educational programs and opportunities that they demand―either by expanding that school or creating more such schools in the district.

William Newell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a graduate of Willamette University.

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