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Back to school: “Choice is for me, not for thee” edition…

2 November 2007

5:09 AM

2 November 2007

5:09 AM

To return to schools. Did you know that it’s a bad thing for a school to be popular? Nor did I. But according to Scott Lemieux a voucher programme is pointless because it can’t save every child overnight and, anyway, there aren’t enough places at private schools in the first place. This rather conveniently ignores the fact that real school choice is not just a question of competition between private and state-sponsored schools but within the state sector itself.

Anyway, Mr Lemieux writes that:

A market in education wouldn’t function like other markets. Whereas more customers (within reason) for a department store mean more profits, more students for a school makes it harder to educate everyone, and places substantial demands on physical spaces that can’t be easily expanded. Even assuming that they provide enough money for students to have a genuinely wide theoretical range of private schools to go to, which in practice is unlikely, vouchers are only an effective solution for more than tiny numbers of students if there are lots of spaces in good schools for children to go to. Or, in other words, they only work if you assume away the problem you’re trying to solve in the first place. The small numbers involved and the fact that schools are very far from being like markets in consumer goods also make large transformative effects created by vouchers exceptionally implausible.

Alas this is nonsense. Well-intentioned nonsense I’m sure but nonsense nonetheless. We actually have a pretty good idea as to how education markets work because – amazingly! – we can look at how market forces and competition operate in the private sector. There we find that failing schools contract and eventually close while successful schools expand and improve the quality of the education they offer their customers. Schools have an incentive to invest in their facilities knowing that if they don’t prospective parents will choose to send their children to competing schools that do. Competition within the private sector drives up standards. I can’t see any logical reason for supposing the same would not be true in the state sector as well provided, that is, that funding follows pupils as it does in the private sector (in the form of fees). That being so, successful schools gain the ability to take on extra staff, provide a greater range of extra-curricular activities, build new facilities etc etc.

Is there likely to be some difference between what a $35,000 a year boarding school and a $10,000 a year state school can offer children? Sure. But that doesn’t invalidate the principle at issue here. The only way that Lemieux’s point can be valid is if the money does not follow the pupil – but all the most serious advocates of school choice insist that this is an essential element.

The capacity question really is a canard, since it assumes that it’s impossible for new schools to be set up or for successful ones to expand. But there’s no compelling reason to suppose that’s the case. Again, we may look to Sweden where in just 15 years the proportion of children educated privately has risen from less than 1% to more than 10% with no indication that this growth will suddenly stop. That experience would seem to suggest that education markets are just as flexible as other kinds of market.


Education, after all, is a commodity that has the great advantage of being a product in which almost all the incentives are for improvement rather than a cost-cutting race to the bottom. Equally importantly – and as I’ve mentioned before – there is plenty of evidence that the expansion of choice in Sweden has helped raise standards in the state-provided education sector too.

Lemieux’s TAPPED colleague Dana Goldstein also weighs in, making the remarkable claim that even if lots of new schools open and even if these schools prove popular with parents:

This will still be a drastically unequal system. Why? Because many, if not most, of the new schools will continue to cater exclusively to poor, non-white students. Those schools will suffer from poor reputations (racism and classism are real), less parent volunteer time, less investment from the community, and probably less funding. Megan, one reason to support the federal government providing any service is that greater centralization can reduce inequalities.

We need to decrease the isolation and concentration of already stigmatized groups within our education system. Since there is no evidence that private charters do a better job at educating kids than public schools do, what makes us think crowding poor kids into private schools en masse will fix the problem? Rather, we need to make more public schools into good public schools, so that more parents opt-in. This doesn’t have to take decades. Schools can turn around in a year or two under good leadership and with quality teachers and high academic standards.

Wel,l yup, I agree that schools can be turned around if there’s good leadership, quality teachers and high academic standards. No argument there! But why isn’t that happening? Why are too many city kids in the US and the UK not benefiting from these obviously good things? If it were simply a matter of looking up Good Head-Teachers Are Us in the Yellow Pages we wouldn’t need to even have this discussion. Perhaps, as Goldstein suggests, we only suffer from a failure of willpower. But somehow methinks it’s more likely to be a systemic problem.

(Individual schools may be tuned around by an inspirational headmaster but that is hardly a prescription for system-wide reform given that, alas, there’s no factory producing inspirational headmasters. To make one other obvious point: one reason private schools are better equipped to respond to parental demand/interests/concerns is that head-teachers have greater freedom to run their school as they see fit. They have a freedom that is the envy of every state-sector teacher I know. That is a non-trivial factor.)

As for this "greater centralisation can reduce inequalities" stuff: well that’s breath-taking (in passing, if this is true and this is your aim, is there any area of human activity you would rule out of bounds for this sort of government-controlled centralisation? and if not, why not?). I say it’s breath-taking because the movement for school choice is built upon despair at the shocking inequalities – of both opportunity and outcome- that centralised, state-controlled "one size fits all" has created. If the current system weren’t so unequal – and such a zipcode lottery – then, again, we wouldn’t be needing to argue about this.

Remember, it really can’t be stressed enough that the people most penalised by the current system are the ambitious, concerned, poor (once upon a time they’d have been called "The Deserving Poor" but I suspect that’s not allowed these days). Let’s put aside knee-jerk paternalism for a moment and see what the people most affected by this have to say for themselves:

Both African Americans and Hispanics are markedly more likely to support vouchers than are whites. Indeed, 68 percent of African Americans and 61 percent of Hispanics favor vouchers, compared to 38 percent of whites. Only 15 percent of African Americans and 23 percent of Hispanics oppose vouchers, compared to 40 percent of whites.

Given that African-Americans and Hispanics are vastly more likely to suffer the consequences of failing inner-city school systems than are whit
es one might think these numbers quite significant. One might even go so far as to suggest they’re significant enough to be worth heeding. The alternative must be to suppose that these people are too stupid to know what’s best for them and they should just pipe down and listen to what their betters have to tell them. The opposition to school choice would seem to come from parents who are, generally speaking, quite content with their children’s education. Lucky them. But that’s no reason to permit them to deny opportunities to their less fortunate fellow-citizens.

An Economist blogger is spot on when he/she argues:

Moreover, lest we brutishly blame the victims, there is no reason to expect that poor consumers would prefer schools that arrest their children’s intellectual development. Were something more closely approximating a market to appear, we should expect, at the very least, that poorer parent will feel less trapped and their children will do no worse in the short run, while, in the long run, the entrepreneurial incentive and competitive process will continuously improve the quality of education at the lowest segment of the price scale — as it has done for almost every other good and service known to man. If it is to be taken seriously by the economically literate, the claim that education is a special exception requires a special explanation.

Neither Ms Goldstein nor Mr Lemieux come anywhere close to offering that explanation. Nor, of course, do they offer anything other than wishful thinking as an alternative solution for the problem of failing urban schools. And yet, remarkably, it’s the advocates of school choice who are the glib ideologues here? I think not my friends, I think not.

UPDATE: Glen Whitman asks why we even suppose that education can be best provided by the state in the first place. True that.


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