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Here’s What Happens If We Run Public Parks Like We Run Public Schools


In an article about school choice initiatives around the country, The New York Times referred to this flyer I saw the other day by a group called Iowans for Public Education.

It just makes sense. We need to create Park Savings Accounts (PSAs) in Iowa!

As you know, back in 2018 the voters of Iowa decided to make summer camp compulsory, and for good reason. Social scientists from across the state and nation told us of the summer brain drain—that time between May and late August when our children lose knowledge they gained during the school year.

It’s all because of an outdated notion of “summer break,” which we all know was a centuries-old holdover from farming days. As parents went off to work in June, the unsupervised children they left were running amok—getting into trouble, getting hurt, running with the wrong crowds, and using their free time to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Some kids even started listening to rock and roll music.

The social costs were skyrocketing. Luckily, Iowans decided to fix this problem by amending the state constitution to create summer camps for all: “The safety and well-being of students is of paramount interest to all citizens of this state. Therefore, the state shall make adequate provision for summer camps for all children within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made in a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free summer camps in local parks across the state.”

Instead of funding individual students to pay for summer camps of their choice, tens of thousands of Local Park Agencies (LPAs) were created to manage the program. Officials drew large circles on maps around parks to determine which residences would be zoned for which parks.

Naturally, This Led to Some Home Camping

Beating brain drain, making good citizens, and preparing children for the challenges of the future is complicated work, and you need qualified adults to do it. So we created the park ranger licensing program to ensure the best-quality adults cared for our children.

The money needed to pay for all of this is raised through state and local taxes, and taxpayers would spend an average of $3,000 per student each summer. An LPA with 3,000 students in it would have a summer budget of at least $9 million, which does not include the cost for constructing parks.

But the goal wasn’t to just build parks that people could choose to visit if and when they wanted. We all agreed summer camps should be compulsory. But we also admitted that requiring all students to go to summer camp at one locally zoned public park is downright Orwellian. So, parents have two other options.

The first option is called home camping, which allows parents to provide summer camp for their children as long as they submit documentation to the LPA detailing what activities they plan to provide. This is only an option for parents who can be home during the summer and have the patience to do it. Despite being fairly commonplace in the twentieth century, home campers soon became seen as a group of outsiders. I mean, how weird is it do to summer camp in your house? What about socialization? What about proper standardized services approved by the experts in the state capital? It’s just plain weird.

The other option is for parents to pay for private summer camp. These used to be much more prevalent in the United States before states started passing laws to provide free summer camp for every student in every neighborhood across the country. Those that remain mostly fill a niche: providing religiously oriented programming, catering to wealthy parents, or just providing an option besides an unsatisfactory local park.

There Have Been Some Unintended Consequences

No one ever envisioned a need for another option. But after a few years, parents started to make decisions about buying houses near the best public parks, and home prices became correlated with the quality of a local park. Parents began paying $300,000 for a home in one part of town, even though the exact same home would be worth no more than $100,000 in another part. Young couples with small children began moving out of cities to the suburbs to be able to afford a quality local park.

But when you have to send your child to the park you live closest to, as a parent you’re going to do what it takes to get him into the best. Let’s face it: some parks are better than others. Some parks have discipline problems, disruptive children, or seem like embodiments of the summer camp movies we grew up with in the 1990s. A lot of public parks are great, but for whatever reason they were not fitting the interests or needs for each individual child zoned to attend them.

Even if you could, local park managers don’t actually control their budgets or have the ability to choose their staff—they’re assigned by the LPA. Workplace rules are written by the LPA, with the help of the local park rangers union. These rules dictate major parameters including the structure of the day, the exact number of hours rangers are expected to work, and other prohibitions that keep managers from being able to fit parks to what different kids need. Rangers get paid based on how long they’ve worked for the park service, their level of education, and a few other variables such as cost of living.

The best park rangers have no interest being assigned to the most difficult parks. Why would they? The difficulty of the job isn’t factored into the set salary schedule. Even the most idealistic young rangers, who are dedicated to taking the tough roles out of a sense of purpose, are chewed up and spit out by the system. The institutional rangers don’t like them and the unions question their motivations.

Despite some positive benefits for the billions and billions spent, the compulsory summer camp program is still falling short on achieving the goal of keeping children safe and educated through June and July.

Some Parents Hit Upon a Solution

After a while, some of us looked around and thought, “Why does it have to be this way?” Why are parents paying 200 percent more for a house just because of the quality of its zoned park? A lot of people actually like living in cities and don’t like the idea of having to move to ‘burbs just to give their kid a shot. Why are low-income families relegated to parks that seem antithetical to the mission of compulsory summer camp? It’s not like they can afford to move to Pleasantville. Why does the government have to be the only one involved with providing services?

Why can’t students take the money that would have been spent on them in their local parks to one of those private summer camps?

People seem to recall a time when there were ways of dealing with this without the LPA. Why can’t students take the money that would have been spent on them in their local parks to one of those private summer camps? Would there be more of them if this was an option? Would they be cheaper? I mean, there are summer camps in ritzy country clubs that provide the same services for less money!

This is why we should support lawmakers in their effort to create Park Savings Accounts. PSAs would allow you to get just the state share of what your local park would spend on your child. You could use this to pay for private summer camp and other summer enrichment alternatives. If you like your local park, nothing will change for you! In fact, since PSAs do not touch local funds, public parks will have more money per student.

Are PSAs going to fix everything wrong with our compulsory summer camp system? No, and we shouldn’t claim that it will. But it might do something very beneficial for the 4 or 5 percent of kids who need something different.

This article is reprinted, with the author’s permission, from Jay Greene’s blog.