Fetching the stupid stick: A cautionary tale

In the American film classic Jurassic Park, the villainous Dennis Nedry shuts down park security to steal cloned dinosaur embryos. While making his escape, he runs off the road and meets up with an escaped dinosaur.

The dinosaur at first seems innocuous. Nedry attempts to order the dinosaur about as if it were a domesticated house pet by getting it to fetch a stick. The dinosaur ignores the stick and stares intently at Nedry, who claims to not have any food.

Nedry chose poorly.

His sad demise holds a lesson for us in the education policy business. The public-school system isn’t a trained poodle, nor is it ours to command. It isn’t stupid and it won’t go fetch the stick.

Over the last 50 years, education reformers keep trying to get the dinosaur to fetch the stick, and each time it ends … poorly. The system is marked by deep levels of inertia, regulatory capture, and elaborate public sector job security.

Your stick would be increased literacy and numeracy, civic knowledge, etc. It stares at you curiously as you make your demands. But it wants to max out dues revenue by increasing public school employment.


Growth in Education Staffing Has Far Outpaced Student Enrollment

Since 1970, total student enrollment in public schools increased by 3.7 million, or 8%. During that same period, total education staffing rose by 2.8 million, or 84%. Most notable was the growth in non-teaching staff, which increased by 138%.

American parents would prefer to be at the table rather than on the menu. Dynamic schooling systems could accomplish this over time. The trick is to align the interests of adult service providers with those of families. Systems will need dignity and autonomy in order to realize this goal.

Approximately 5% (and counting!) of American students will have access to universal or nearly universal private school choice next fall. The state count currently stands at four: Arizona, Iowa, Utah and West Virginia.

The percentage could go substantially higher by the time the smoke of the 2023 legislative sessions clears. That’s good.

Dinosaurs have ruled the earth long enough.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.