Diary

"Progressive" school district is puzzled to discover that markets work.

Boulder, Colorado, is the land where Democrats have ruled supreme since the dawn of time. Or at least since the 1960’s, which pretty much coincides with the dawn of time for me.

Boulder is also the county seat of Boulder County, and the city contains the headquarters of the Boulder Valley School District, which serves schools throughout the county and beyond.

The Boulder Valley School District contains a number of much-less-liberal areas. Cities like Lafayette and Broomfield (and others) operate as feeders to the city of Boulder proper, so that the citizens of Boulder itself can be served by people who could never hope to live in the city. It’s a bit like Aspen or Telluride that way.

So much is history. But it makes for some unintentional humor at times, and a new article today was wonderful.

The Denver Post reported today that the school district has been working to make lunches healthier, but that something odd happened. It seems that unexpected problems have arisen. The money quote is as follows:

But the program, which was billed initially as revenue neutral, lost almost $700,000 in its first year despite a 25-cent increase in lunch prices — mostly because fewer kids signed up to eat than were expected.

The school district, with about 25,000 students, anticipated a 10 percent surge in participation with the new meals above the 26 percent participation but got only a 2 percent district-wide increase.

Or, in other words, when they raised the price and at the same time marketed the change as an improvement, many people decided not to participate!

Which came as a tremendous surprise, I’m sure. Who would have thought demand could be elastic?

(And for those of you keeping score at home, please note that the financial geniuses who did this based the plan on a higher-cost change covered by both higher prices and higher demand. Which to an economist is a rather extraordinary outcome, but this is Boulder.)

Apparently, though, there was a split in the returns:

… schools in Boulder and Louisville sold about 80,000 more meals during the year after they were made healthier, but students in Lafayette and Broomfield schools bought about 53,000 fewer.

Again astonishing. Students who live in families where the median incomes are much higher bought more of the expensive lunches, while students whose families are not so well-off bought fewer. Simple economics might explain this, but cultural differences might too: students from lower-income families are less likely to have been indoctrinated in the innate “goodness” of organic food, less likely to come from a background embracing the religious mythology about “healthy” eating, and probably less likely to appreciate having their chocolate milk taken away.

No good story out of Boulder is complete without a passing patronizing slam at the hoi polloi of the County, however:

“If you lost a job or spouse, you may pack lunches instead of buying them,” said Bill Sutter, interim chief financial officer for the school district.

Which is to say, if you’re one of those poor people. Boulder itself, of course, would never have unstable marriages or problems with unemployment. And even if they did, making sure their children get proper organic salad bars would no doubt be critical enough to avoid (gasp) packing a lunch.

Which leads to what is actually the only really irritating thing about an otherwise entertaining experiment in sloppy thinking by people who have never in their lives had to be accountable for their opinions or actions.

The school district is responding to the lunch crisis by increasing their marketing efforts. New slogans, new pressure on parents, sports celebrities stopping by, and so on. All of which will cost money, which will only reduce the (already negative) return on investment. The costs, of course, are picked up by the taxpayers of the State of Colorado and the Boulder Valley School District. That near-million dollars they’re going to spend every year trying to foist a mistaken mythology onto their students is coming from people who are already struggling. The spending competes for priority with real needs: books, teachers, and repairs. It’s a fancy luxury and a pointless expense at a bad time.

But this is Boulder, and reality has never had too strong a grip in Boulder. They’re not going to suddenly get smart, and the problem is small enough that it’s not going to kill them. So for those of us who have seen it over and over, it’s just another delightful unintended lesson in Natural Consequences 101.