Skip to Content


Trick or Treat or Voucher?

1 November 2007

1:21 AM

1 November 2007

1:21 AM

Megan McArdle has been on a rare old tear recently, pushing the argument for school choice, here and here and here and here and here. It will not surprise some readers that I rather agree with her.

Clearly, however, this just proves my foolishnesss. Did you know that it’s impossible to make a good faith argument in favour of school choice or any programme that gives poor families greater input into where their children are educated? Me neither. Time for me to be telt, obviously.

Exhibit A) Matt Yglesias:

…the United States already "allows" poor parents to withdraw their children from inner city school systems in much the same way that it allows rich and middle class parents to withdraw their children from inner city school systems. They’re "allowed" to send their kids to a private school that’s willing to educate them, and they’re "allowed" to move elsewhere. Obviously, in practice poor families have less practical capacity to do this. But by the same token, poor families have less practical capacity to live on streets with well-appointed sidewalks, to choose cruelty-free meat, to get health care, to benefit from competently organized disaster relief, to live in neighborhoods with low murder rates, and all kinds of other things. These are all real problems but since they’re problems of practical capacity rather than permission (about the fair value of the right, rather than the existence of the right) institutional design is about all that matters.

Exhibit B) Ezra Klein:

There are a lot of very good, very smart people thinking through education policy, childhood poverty, etc. Then there are somewhat more shallow people who want to propose a tough-minded solution to the sorry state of inner city education, and they fasten on vouchers (which no evidence has ever suggested will actually solve the problem) or teacher’s unions (ditto). Those policies may have some worth. But they are not Answers, no study has ever suggested otherwise, and forcing us into an endless conversation over them is actually bad, so far as I can tell, for the education debate. They do, however, give a certain class of participants a useful club with which to beat on liberals and accuse them of active opposition to the disadvantaged.

So there you have it. If you think that giving people more control over their lives is a good thing you’re just being glib. And you probably hate poor folk too.

The question is not whether or not a voucher system can improve everyone’s education overnight but whether or not it can do more than the status quo to advance the interests of children. Matt – rather blithely! – says "Obviously, in practice poor families have less practical capacity" to move to catchment areas for the best state schools (because they can’t afford to) which is, of course, precisely the point. The whole idea behind school choice is that, in time, competition for pupils between schools will drive up standards (as well as increase parental involvement in their kids’ education).

The question is not one of perfection but of improvement and, frankly, given the proportion of kids in state schools (in the UK and the US) who are not benefiting from the kind of education we would wish them to receive, it is hard to see quite why the idea of letting ordinary people have more control over their lives can be a bad thing.

That empowerment would, from a philosophical point of view, be a good thing anyway. It makes no more sense for the state to tell you where your kids may be educated at high school than it does for the state to tell you what university you may attend. So, yes, school choice has – in my view – a value even if it produced the same educational outcomes as the current system. I’d also say that in the long-term such a scenario seems unlikely: introducing competition to the state sector seems more likely to drive up standards, just as it already does in the private sector. Follow the money: I have a hard time believing that incentivising schools to perform better is really likely to prove catastrophic. Indeed, I’m not sure I can recall a major piece of research concluding that voucher programmes in other countries have made matters worse

Equally it is remarkable that so many people should still cling to the "one size fits all" approach when experience suggests that there are precious few human activities for which this is appropriate, let alone one as complex and subject to so many variables as education.

At the risk of labouring the point, the notion that school choice programmes will destroy education and are the province only of those who wish to enslave the poor would be news to those countries that have introduced vouchers. Among them are our old friends in Sweden and the Netherlands as well as, on the other side of the world, New Zealand.

Sweden’s story is interesting: the vouchers proved controversial when introduced 15 years ago by a (by Swedish standards) right-wing government. Tellingly, however, there is no popular support now for abandoning the programme. A paper from Stockholm’s  Research Institute of Industrial Economics (which can be downloaded here) which studied the impact of Sweden’s voucher system on 28,000 kids finds, contra Ezra’s claim that "no evidence" has ever been found that vouchers can be part of a solution:

Greater competition improves the standards of public schools…Sweden has left a system with virtually no parental influence over school choice, and an almost complete dominance of public schools. A voucher system, where parents are allowed to choose any school approved by the National Agency for Education, has been put in its place…

A widespread concern among opponents of school choice is that competition will hurt the public schools. The present study shows this fear to be without foundation.

No wonder that, to the best of my knowledge, vouchers and choice programmes have proven popular wherever they have been implemented: in Europe, the antipodes and in countries such as Chile and Colombia in Latin America. Now, clearly there are many ways to skin a cat and school choice schemes vary from country to country. But the basic point remains that school choice is popular wherever it is introduced. From that one may deduce that parents are, on the whole, satisfied with the greater opportunities available to them. It requires quite some imagination to suppose that parents in each of these very different countries have been duped by a nefarious right-wing plot to destroy education.

As Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics at Harvard, argues in this paper:

The essence of school choice is a claim that if government intervenes mainly through setting prices and pa
rameters, education investment will be more optimal than if it intervenes through quantity regulation or, more usually, straight government provision. School choice is a claim about the form of intervention, not a claim that education is best left to a laissez-faire market because, if they were interested in a laissez-faire situation, advocates of school choice would presumably not be interested in the use of
tax dollars at all.

Hoxby cites three factors vital to a successful choice programme:  supply flexibility, money following students and independent school management.  Take any one of those elements away – as has been the case in, say, Milwaukee where the money does not follow pupils effectively and independent management (which does not mean being free from assessment) has been curtailed – and you reduce the impact and efficacy of any voucher or school choice system.

Matt talks about "practical capacity" as though this were an insuperable problem. In other words, even if you let everyone choose their school all the good ones are going to be over-subscribed so the best you can hope for is that a few kids will be better off but that most will see no real difference in their situation. But that’s why the money is important: if the money follows the pupil (and crucially, is taken from poorly performing schools) then over-subscribed schools have an additional incentive (beyond altruism or a sense of mission) to expand. Crucially they also have the ability to do so.

That’s why voucher programmes of the sort favoured by most pro-voucher experts are explicitly designed to address the point Matt makes here:

If we’re concerned not about the "right" of exit (which already exists) but the practical ability to get a better education, then you need policies that increase the supply of schools that do a good job of educating poor children.

Well, yeah, that’s exactly the point. (And is also why it takes time for voucher programmes to work: the good schools won’t expand automatically, nor will the bad, unpopular ones fade away immediately. Hence it’s silly to say, "hey look vouchers aren’t working" after just one or two years. It’s a long-term effort at improvement, not an immediate panacea.)

Now it may be that all these other countries with their silly choice programmes and all the parents who would like to be able to choose schools for their kids are wrong. Perhaps they really have no clue about what works best for their kids. And, yes, perhaps some voucher enthusiasts are from time to time too keen to suggest that vouchers are a magical and immediate solution to all educational problems. But… I find it hard to believe that they’re quite such a pernicious policy proposal as Matt and Ezra would have us think. Nor, needless to say, do I find their sweeping accusations of bad faith terribly convincing.   

UPDATE: Time Lee has more good things to say on this.

Show comments