Responses to Marcus and Conor

As expected, my essay has produced three interesting and impressive responses. Before I get the discussion going, then, allow me to thank Conor, Marcus, and Deborah for them and for what I am sure will be a really engaging discussion.

I will address Marcus’s response first, because it is probably the one with which I have the least disagreement; really, just a point of clarification on my end. I did not mean to suggest that education does not produce important spillover effects or positive externalities; surely, my ability to read, write, and be a thoughtful or “good” citizen (whatever that means!) affects those around me as well as myself. My suggestion was that I suspect that for just about any benefit of education we can think of – from my ability to read, write, and think critically, to my ability to be informed about the kind of government under which I live – the internal benefit is at least as strong or stronger than the external benefit. And with that, I suggest that the spillover benefit rationale for public funding of education (let alone public administration!) is probably overblown, as even without public funding, I’d have a strong interest to make sure my child can read, write, participate in an economy, be a “good” citizen, and all that.

That said, I am glad Marcus noticed that I’m not advocating a complete separation between school and state; I am advocating that the state stop administering education but not necessarily stop funding it. Even if the spillover effect rationale doesn’t hold up or is overblown (and yes, that is an empirical question to a large degree), there are still potentially good reasons to want pubic funding in education. Even Milton Friedman – who, over time, moved from support for universal vouchers to a support of a more limited role for the state to fund education – ended up suggesting that the state should still provide funding for those whose poverty would keep them from affording an adequate minimum level of education. (Of course, there are also reasons to be a bit skeptical of public funding, because whatever the state funds, the state will likely want to maintain strong oversight of. This is part of the reason why Friedman became squeamish of state funding for education.)

I believe that the state should provide funding for education more or less on the humanitarian grounds cited by Friedman: because education lays the foundation for us to exercise liberty and autonomy, the state has some role in at least ensuring that those who could not afford education otherwise have access to some adequate minimum. I am quite ambivalent, though, about what this means in terms of implementation. The part of me that would like to minimize governmental involvement in education (to avoid potential entanglements that would almost certainly grow over time) would like to see some sort of tax credit system, where government’s role is limited to allowing individuals and other donors to write off educational expenses or donations from their taxes (and receive a refund if their expenditure is larger than their tax obligations). The part of me that believes the best government policies are the ones that treat everyone equally (and thus avoid the potential for interest group politics) wants to see a universal voucher system of the kind favored by the early Milton Friedman. The former special educator in me who is both interested in equity and understands that there are those who “have” costly-to-educate “disabilities” wants to see a “weighted” voucher system (the kind favored by Sugarman and Coons); under such a system, some students would receive extra voucher money as inducement for schools to undertake their more costly educations. Almost no part of me wants to see charters, because while I think charters are an improvement to the status quo public school systems, I see a huge potential for abuse given charters’ crony capitalist characteristics, given how charters must be granted and revoked by state bureaucracies. I would love to get Marcus’s thoughts on which of the above choice systems (or others) he thinks fare best given existing data. I’d also like to get Conor’s thoughts here, and Deborah’s, though I suspect I know what she thinks of them all.

On to Conor’s excellent response. I think the spirit of Conor’s piece is absolutely correct; we must get clear on how we want a market to be structured based on what we expect it to do. More on that in a second. First, I mostly disagree with Conor that today’s educational landscape in the United States can be categorized as a kind of school choice. Why? Because schools are only one of the things we choose when we choose where to live. I choose a house and location I like but can afford, a neighborhood I feel safe in, a place that is close enough to work and other places I need to get to, and a whole bunch of other factors, and… oh yeah…. a place that has good public schools. Sure, it may be that public education in the area is a large factor in my decision, but to say that I have school choice because I can move somewhere completely different is at best a partial truth. (Conor’s is still an important point, though, because we too often talk of a choice as a binary, where we either have choice or we don’t, rather than a spectrum where there are greater and lesser degrees of choice; we classical liberals especially need to get better at seeing choice as a spectrum.)

I think that the real issue – and I suspect Conor agrees – is to make choice easier to exercise for people. We might have some semblance of school choice because we can move to a different district, but frankly, that is an expensive choice to exercise and, because moving is a costly proposition, this puts choice far out of the reach of many of the poor and most vulnerable. Why not allow people to have a less costly kind of choice? Instead of having to move to a different area, where schools are still only one part of the bundle of goods they will purchase, allow them to shop for a new school without shopping for a new home.

Conor is right to point out that our decentralized public school system (and the semblance of choice it provides) produces great inequalities. But then, he suggests that I probably gloss over “the market’s current role in American education because acknowledging that role makes it harder to offer greater market reliance as the proper alternative to the status quo.” That was not my intent. First, as mentioned, it is debatable whether “shop for a house and a place to live, and a school comes with it” is much of a market for schools. But second, had I done more than glossed over the inequality within our current public school system, I’d likely have done so to argue that “markets produce inequality” really isn’t a good argument for a public school system that produces inequality too (and seemingly has produced big inequality, regardless of how much the local, state, and federal governments spend on it).

I’ll talk about the idea of equality more in my response to Deborah, but I believe that, while markets may not produce equality of educations, what they will do – and what they do in most every other industry where they are allowed to work – is raise the quality and/or lower the cost of all groups’ products over time. No, this is not equality, but I care more about whether, over time, the poor and others can purchase increasingly better education at increasingly lower cost. The entrepreneurship that markets allow for and incent has a good chance of offering exactly this.

Lastly, though, Conor brings up a really interesting consideration – whether markets can function without a good flow of information from producers to consumers, and whether government has any role to play here. I hate to sound wishy-washy in my responses to both Marcus and Conor, but again, I am a bit ambivalent. On the one (and decisively more dominant) hand, I do think that governments may have a role to play in mandating that schools report out certain common information to a forum easily accessible to consumers (graduation rates, teacher to student ratios, college acceptance rates for high schools), but am skeptical of giving government authority to mandate standardized testing across schools. Those who have taught know that whoever dictates the assessment dictates the standards and learning goals, which goes some way toward indirectly influencing curriculum. I also suspect that, like in some other areas of the economy, it may well happen that some sort of accreditation process emerges in response to market pressures, and that this could in some ways obviate the need for government-mandated standardized testing across schools. On the other hand, this is entirely speculative, and if it happened that some sort of accreditation process did not emerge, or if parents found it excessively difficult to access information on different schools, I’d be cautiously willing to entertain some sort of state mandate to this effect. However, I think this latter route would likely be unnecessary. From the automobile industry to the travel industry, easy-to-use websites and other venues have developed that allow customers to compare products and services with good information when shopping around; it would be strange if a market in education did not produce similar results, but I will remain open on that score.

I will respond to Deborah separately.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • School Choice: Whether, Why, How? by Kevin Currie-Knight

    Markets provide many of the goods and services we typically need in raising children. Yet education has long been an enormous exception to the rule. Why should that be? Kevin Currie-Knight examines some of the reasons commonly used to justify this exception. He finds them either insufficient or doubtful, and he recommends some principles that might drive a freer market in education.

Response Essays

  • Crafting Educational Markets: Some Evidence from Washington, D.C. by Conor P. Williams

    Conor P. Williams argues that some places already have significantly market-based education systems, perhaps to a degree that Kevin Currie-Knight would find difficult to admit. He uses Washington, D.C.’s public schools as an example of what limited, well-managed market pressures can do, and he welcomes some (though not all) of the changes the market has wrought. He finds that the debate should not be characterized as one of markets versus non-markets, but of exactly where and how market pressures should be brought to bear.

  • A Public Problem, A Private Solution by Marcus A. Winters

    Marcus A. Winters finds a genuine government role in education, albeit a limited one. He suggests that public funding should continue, but that the provision of services is often best handled in the private sector. The evidence on school choice programs shows no harm to the existing public school system, he finds, and while charter schools do not always or everywhere do better than public schools, some of them have. They should be allowed to develop further so that we can study them in detail and realize their full potential.

  • Be Careful When You Say “Choice” by Deborah Meier

    Deborah Meier supports “small, self-governing schools of choice,” but she is concerned that trusting the market imperils democracy. The marketplace stands ready to divide us by class and race, she argues, and if it does, we will no longer possess any motive for maintaining democratic habits of heart and mind. With them we will lose empowerment and opportunity for the least fortunate in our society. The right answer, then, is to implement school choice within a publicly funded and locally administered school system, one that allows parents, teachers, and even students a significant voice in governing their schools.

The Conversation