A family of four in New York City's Central Park
Many urban American public schools could learn from the story of Central Park. Reuters

The New York City landmark bucked the tragedy of the commons. Can America's school systems do the same?

“[T]hat which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” - Aristotle

The economics concept of “the tragedy of the commons” sounds both dramatic and complex, but it’s actually quite familiar, particularly to anyone who has rented a car.

Also known as “the open-access problem,” the theory gained notoriety when the ecologist Garrett Hardin used it in a 1968 Science article. “Picture,” he wrote, “a pasture open to all.” Each herdsman gains by “keep[ing] as many cattle as possible on the commons,” because he reaps the full profit from additional milk production yet spreads the cost of overgrazing out over the entire community. All know their shared resource would be maximized if they restrained themselves, yet each is personally incentivized to exploit.

That’s what happens with “it’s just a rental.” Everyone wins if we all take good care of the Hyundai Sonata, but the math comes out differently when I can only make it to my important meeting by eating soup while hopping a curb.

Like other public goods, education is supposed to flow freely, not resemble a commons. Grinnell Smith and Colette Rabin, elementary-education professors at San Jose State University, explain, “[Americans] recognize that higher levels of education track with lower incidences of crime, lower healthcare costs, higher employment rates and many other factors likely to improve conditions for everyone … so collectively, we agree to pay for public schools.” But in practice, funding (and teacher) shortages create a limited resource that’s then depleted by school-choice programs and segregation.

To see why this is so, and what can be done about it, a short stroll through the history of Central Park is in order. In the mid-1800s, a large swath of the 843 acres where the park now sits in some sense resembled the archetypal commons. When the poor immigrants and free African Americans who raised hogs and grew vegetables there needed firewood, they simply cut down trees, according to The Park and the People.

After a circle of elite New Yorkers conceptualized a park to rival those of Europe, a decade was spent acquiring, emptying, and reshaping the land to produce Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterwork of landscape architecture. Olmsted’s vision of a democratizing space, where people of all classes could gather, flourished for a time. But failure to offset use with investment soon yielded the scene described by the historian Robert Caro in The Power Broker:

The park’s lawns ... became dust holes in dry weather and mud holes in wet. Its walks were broken and potholed…. Benches lay on their backs, their legs jabbing at the sky .… The concrete had been stripped of drinking fountains so completely that only their rusting iron pipes remained.

Using New Deal relief workers and other federal funding, the renowned city planner Robert Moses refurbished and enhanced the park. But by the 1970s, Central Park was once again “in a chronic state of decay,” according to its official website: “[T]he Park bred a careless, even abusive attitude … evidenced by unchecked amounts of garbage, graffiti, and vandalism. Positive use had increasingly been displaced by illicit and illegal activity.”

Pedro Noguera, a preeminent education expert who recently moved from New York University to the University of California, Los Angeles, sees many American schools in a similar light: “With almost every urban public-school system,” he says, “we’ve seen [civic leaders] allow it to just continue to deteriorate.” In some impoverished areas, classrooms are brimming with more than 40 kids each, students have to share textbooks, and a focus on protecting oneself—when the crumbling walls scream that no one else cares—displaces learning. Yet Noguera thinks public schools in the United States can thrive, in part by following the park’s lead.

In 1980, New York City’s upper class reentered the picture. After about 30 citizens began working with Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, a private nonprofit called the Central Park Conservancy resulted. To date it has poured more than $875 million into the park.

The city didn’t simply turn Central Park over to the wealthy, however. The conservancy’s 52 board members focus primarily on fundraising, while Douglas Blonsky, a licensed landscape architect with a background in horticulture, serves both as head of the conservancy and as NYC Parks’ Central Park administrator. The parks commissioner, he says, “sets all big-picture policies,” but when it comes to maintenance and operations the city “pretty much delegates” authority to the conservancy, which Blonsky then passes down by dividing the park, his staff, and “300 very active volunteers” into 49 autonomously managed zones.

Central Park before restoration
Central Park prior to restoration (Courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy)
Central Park after restoration
Central Park after restoration (Courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy)

This model breaks a scholarly mold in both economics and education. When seeking to avoid a tragedy of the commons, two solutions were traditionally cited: privatization (controlling behavior using market disincentives, like my car rental costing more if I ding it) and regulation (“To [limit] use of parking space we introduce parking meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones,” Hardin wrote). These same two choices—market and state—dominate education-policy proposals. (Vouchers, for example, represent an attempt to unleash the forces of supply and demand on pedagogy, while the Common Core standards stem from governors banding together to standardize it.) The conservancy exemplifies a third option for which Elinor Ostrom won a 2009 Nobel Prize: self-regulation.

In Governing the Commons, Ostrom identified communities that had created mixed “‘private-like’ and ‘public-like’” institutions to govern common resources such as forests and fisheries. These efforts tended to succeed in situations similar to Central Park’s: where people are “heavily dependent on the [resource]” (like Manhattanites who almost as a rule lack backyards), when at least some participants have “leadership or other assets” (like conservancy-board members and volunteers), and when external authorities provide users with “substantial autonomy” yet a framework of high-level oversight and support (like both NYC Parks and Blonsky ceding considerable control to those on the ground).

Public education in the United States currently lacks these preconditions for warding off depletion. For starters, a 1925 Supreme Court decision affirmed parents’ right to choose private schooling. Parochial and independent schools have since proliferated, meaning many Americans enjoy the equivalent of a backyard and aren’t educationally “tied together in a lattice of interdependence … strongly motivat[ing them] to try to solve common problems,” as Ostrom puts it. Noguera explains: “Because the affluent [often] don’t rely on the public schools … it’s very easy to write them off.”

Many schools also lack students and parents with “assets,” thanks to the way America populates and funds them. School assignment tends to be based on where a student lives, which means schools reflect economically and racially segregated housing arrangements. Meanwhile, state funding covers less than half of what school districts need. Local taxes or bond measures, plus school-specific PTA donations, fill in the funding gap in the schools where middle-class and affluent parents cluster. That works out well for Portola Valley, California, for example, one of the wealthiest towns in the country with a district of two schools and around 700 students, but not for Cleveland Elementary School in nearby San Francisco. (I went to middle school in Portola Valley.)

“In effect, the ability to move,” says Parag Pathak, an MIT economist who focuses on education, “functions as an indirect school-choice system, with pricing built into the real-estate market.” As a result, the large park that is the country’s public-education system features some well-tended promenades and other glades where swings hang from one chain and all walking paths are dead ends.

What about charter schools? Aren’t they public-private partnerships like the conservancy? They could be, but the fact that state funding is primarily distributed on a per-pupil basis in the United States means each child who enrolls in a charter school decreases the money—and “motivated families,” Noguera points out—remaining for traditional public schools. In that situation exists a true commons where one person’s use means less left for the rest. The parallel would be if the conservancy had convinced NYC Parks to dedicate part of the preexisting Central Park budget to a small, gated, and privately managed garden.

Seen in this light, nonprofit charters, and even small, suburban school districts, resemble publicly subsidized privatization options—like the for-profit-charter management companies and private-school voucher programs advocated by the Trump administration—more so than they do the conservancy.

Some would argue otherwise, of course. Paul Peterson, who directs the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, disagreed with the premise that charter schools detract money from traditional public ones. Only state funding is typically distributed on a per-pupil basis, he said, while “the local money is the local money, no matter how many kids there are.” In other words, a district that sees students leave for charter schools will actually have more money available on a per-student basis. School superintendents would likely counter that they still end up with less money to cover costs that don’t scale like infrastructure, but Peterson says most educational costs are variable ones, like for staffing. If there’s an issue with insufficient funding, he says, “take [it] up with the state-aid formula. [It’s got] nothing to do with charter schools.”

As to the point about charters draining the traditional public schools of parent volunteers and the most easily educated children, Peterson says he doesn’t think that’s the case, because test scores have gone up in districts that have seen high charter enrollment, such as Los Angeles Unified School District and District of Columbia Public Schools. That said, he admits the question is an open one: “We have no conclusive evidence that charter schools either help or hurt the students attending public schools.”

Even if all were in agreement, Noguera says requiring that school-choice programs get funded through a separate stream just isn’t going to happen: “The charter people say that would kill charters. Without the public money, they can’t do it.” Warren Buffett’s recommendation—“It’s easy to solve the problems of public education,” he once said. “All you have to do is outlaw private schools and assign every child to public school by lottery”—is even more politically unfeasible. Luckily, the conservancy’s experience offers additional insight into rectifying the tragedy of the educational commons.

Only when external authorities, like the Roosevelt administration and Mayor Koch, as well as grassroots users, like the board members Blonsky says “principally live within a 10-minute walk of the park,” focused their attention on Central Park did it improve. Noguera says traditional public schools need both “the mayor of the city … and community leaders stepping up and saying, ‘Look, we can’t have a viable city without good public schools that serve … a much more diverse population than they do now.”

Political will isn’t enough, though. As Central Park was spruced up both the number of donors and the average amount each gave increased. Money once again begat money. Pathak says social scientists have had trouble pinning down the relationship between spending and educational outcomes, but there are “pretty robust findings” that expensive things like smaller class size “are better for kids.” Smith, the San Jose State professor, concurs: “The proposed defense budget is half a trillion; the proposed federal education budget is roughly a tenth of that. There’s a saying that you can’t solve the problems of education by throwing money at them. To that, I ask, ‘How do we know?’ We’ve never really tried.”

There’s something else begetting money. Once Central Park became a world-renowned tourist destination, it got easier to justify both public and private investment. Prestige influences education as well. It factors into school choice, particularly when it comes to parents of means (as Noguera says, “The only thing that’s going to make affluent people put their kids in [public schools] is if the schools are [seen as] ‘good’”). Prestige also affects instructional quality. Higher salaries can help retain effective teachers and lure smart people with an aptitude for instruction away from other jobs, but research points to an even more effective strategy: enhancing the social status of public-school teachers. “What we need,” says Smith’s colleague, Rabin, “is for teachers to be considered scholars.”

Finally, Central Park offers a Goldilocks lesson in autonomy. Pathak says issues with charter-school oversight appear in states where many different entities can approve a proposed charter school and monitoring of existing ones is inadequate. Traditional public schools arguably suffer from the opposite problem, with high-stakes testing, detailed curriculum standards, and even labor unions restricting the agility of principals, teachers, and community members to respond to localized needs. Moreover, “[because] the voting public … is disproportionately white and affluent, … the people who are most dependent on [public] schools have the least say on who’s going to run [them],” Noguera says.

One way to get the level of local control “just right” in education is clear: Family engagement—not the homework-help variety, but deeper involvement in the life of a school—improves outcomes. That’s just as Ostrom’s work—which showed that sustainability increases when governments give fisherman the ability to change their own rules on who gets to catch what, where, and when—would predict, and what Central Park’s enhanced efficiency under the zone-management system teaches.

These findings in the open-access realm also support Smith’s suggestion for those Rabin calls “billionaire boys”: “If you’re one of those guys … you think ‘look, I know what I’m talking about in this other domain so I know what I’m talking about in this domain, here’s how you should use my money.’ But what they underestimate is the complexity of teaching.” Instead, he says, philanthropists should make grants to needy school districts and let those closest to the kids decide how best to spend the funds.

None of these points stands alone. If political prioritization and fiscal investment were to improve public schools sufficiently to entice professionals into sending their children, prestige would follow, along with additional private dollars and involvement in decision-making that would facilitate further improvements. On the other hand, autonomy won’t help struggling schools unless accompanied by resources, and those won’t come without political will and prestige.

The virtuous side of this circle is on display at individual schools—urban public ones benefitting from financially stable parents making pacts to enroll their children together as well as successful charters and suburban schools. The question becomes, how does America expand the triumphs of one corner of the commons to benefit the rest?

Unfortunately, here Ostrom and the conservancy offer little guidance. The largest self-regulated resource Ostrom studied involved thousands, not millions. And it should come as no surprise that NYC Parks has more trouble drumming up donations for parks in neighborhoods with fewer wealthy residents, according to The Park and the People.

Even if reconceptualizing public education as a commons won’t end its struggles, the framework provides an important starting place for those intent on seeing all of America’s young herd thrive. “Because schools are so under-resourced we need to figure out a way to draw in private money to support them,” Noguera says, “but I haven’t seen … that kind of public-private partnership in public education.”

“Can you imagine New York without Central Park?” he asks: “It wouldn’t be the same city.” Public schools also have the potential “to bring together people of different classes,” Noguera says: “but cities [don’t] recognize how important the public schools are to the social infrastructure…. There’s actually been a disinvestment in the public schools ... because there’s no vision on how to re-invest and reinvigorate those schools. It’s so short-sighted.”

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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