Crafting Educational Markets: Some Evidence from Washington, D.C.

As a parent whose neighborhood is currently convulsing over Washington D.C.’s proposed plans for shifting the enrollment boundaries of nearby elementary schools, I found the spirit animating Kevin Currie-Knight’s lead essay congenial. And my case is, sadly, typical throughout the country. Too often, district public schools are geographically captured by privileged families who spare no effort to protect their advantages in the name of “preserving the character” of their neighborhood schools. When public educational institutions have fallen prey to this dynamic, it’s tempting—indeed, it’s appropriate—to wonder whether this is an appropriate use of public funds. Nothing dulls a man’s faith in geographic distribution of public goods like self-interested efforts to preserve the rights of the well-to-do at the expense of children from less-wealthy families.

And yet, the simmering discord in my neighborhood illustrates something that Kevin overlooks in his piece: to an important degree, we already have a market in American education. The problem is that it’s an awkward, unacknowledged market. We pretend as though neighborhood public schools are public goods provided to all American children as a part of their citizenship. As a matter of supply, this is (mostly) true. But, as is relatively obvious, the contours of that public good vary considerably according to local real estate markets. Parents who can afford the right mortgages can essentially purchase a higher-quality PreK–12 education for their children.

I think that Kevin understands this at an implicit level. But it goes unexpressed in his piece. He suggests that “unless the public system is very centralized and standardized, some schools will always be better than others. Where a family can afford to live will then heavily influence what public school its children can go to.” And yet, in the largely decentralized American education system, where nearly 90 percent of schools’ funding comes from state or local sources, this is already the case.

I suspect that Kevin glosses 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. If we admit that our current system incorporates market pressures by means of real estate demand and corresponding shifts in the quality of school supply, it gets harder to present the debate as not-markets vs. markets.

I think that this is an unproductive way to think about the place that parental (and student) choice ought to play in American education. Instead of asking whether we are willing to move education from “the public domain” to a system of “private provision,” we ought to focus on a question that Kevin mentions, but does not explore in his piece: what sort of an education market do we really want?

Presumably we want an education market that rewards efficient use of resources when measured against the goal of high student achievement. We want to maximize quality and minimize costs. So far, so good. But this is where educational markets get complicated: how do we define quality?

Perhaps this seems like a paternalist question. As Kevin notes, the virtue of increased educational choice is that it permits families to seek out and engage instructional models that suit their needs as they see them. As a parent of two children, I get this: pedagogy that works for my daughter may not work for my son. If we accept Kevin’s premise—that the public’s interest in educating the citizenry is relatively limited—shouldn’t we allow market mechanisms to essentially define quality according to families’ choices

Maybe. But this is harder than it sounds. Market efficiency functions best in the presence of free, clear information about available options. And in the world of education, data on the quality of various metrics is notoriously hard to come by. This isn’t just a product of the klugeocratic patchwork of institutions governing American public education (though our weird blend of local, state, and federal policy prerogatives doesn’t help). It’s also a product of the unique challenges of measuring educational efficacy.

We might, like the Fordham Institute, propose that students at private educational providers take a common assessment. This would give parents a useful source of information when choosing a provider. And yet standardized assessments offer a limited view of what students know and can do. What’s more, they provide data only on a particular time window—good results in one year give only limited information on scores in coming years. For parents who have already chosen a school in an educational marketplace, this is particularly worrisome. Standardized assessments can only warn them that their students’ schools are operating poorly at the end of the period assessed—after the damage has been done. Common data collection and publication are perhaps necessary for an efficient educational market, but they’re hardly sufficient.

Fortunately, in a marketplace, schools would almost certainly provide additional data on their performance to entice prospective parents. This would be an unquestionable improvement on the public system, where schools often hide such details to shroud ineffectiveness. Of course, school-sponsored data puts additional burdens on parents: how do they compare School A’s self-published CLASS scores with School B’s DRA data and School C’s small class sizes?

Could parents trust the data presented in various schools’ advertising materials? In the absence of a common source of data on educational effectiveness, they have limited sources of unbiased information. And the presence of a common source of data is hardly a silver bullet.

For example: we might try publishing a schools guide that explains and compares school-offered data. However, there is some evidence that data collection and transparency is a heavy lift in education markets; D.C.’s voucher program struggles mightily with this minimal requirement. The virtues of educational markets—decentralization and educational pluralism—make even basic informational oversight difficult.

Even so, we might still be sanguine about these concerns if education were simply another transferable commodity. But as Kevin notes, education is uniquely determinative of children’s future trajectories. If they buy a terrible car that gives out after three mechanic-riddled years, they simply replace it. If they endure three ineffective years of instruction—especially in the early years—they may well have missed key developmental windows. Decades of research show us that it’s much, much more difficult (and expensive) to address developmental and academic gaps later in life. Low-income children, on average, are years behind their wealthier peers by the time they arrive at kindergarten—and their chances of catching up appear to decrease the longer the gaps persist. A great 4th grade teacher can’t necessarily rectify the accrued deficits of an ineffective early education. As such, quite a lot hangs on parents’ abilities to interpret and respond to school data.

Of course, Kevin is right to remind us that “there is no good reason governments can’t get education wrong in the same way a private company could.” That’s why it’s so important to focus on how to incorporate markets into education in a targeted way to encourage student learning, foster a wide array of school options, and release clear and timely information for parents.

So here’s a concrete example to work from: while Washington, D.C.’s voucher program has been plagued by administrative challenges, the capital’s district and charter school choice program has flourished. The local charter board has worked with D.C. Public Schools to develop an information system that gives parents plenty of data, as well as a unified lottery that simplifies the application process for district and charter schools alike. There’s plenty of room for innovation here. D.C. has a Hebrew immersion charter, a dual language district school, a Mandarin immersion charter, a Spanish-language charter with a focus on sustainability and expeditionary learning, and much more.

This isn’t to say that D.C.’s education market is perfect (far from it!), but it offers parents useful information, freedom from the iron link between property value and educational quality, and a flexible accountability system. As a result, market pressures are working very much as Kevin hopes. Competition from charters has forced DCPS to be more transparent about how their schools are performing. Ineffective schools are being publicly identified, and through a combination of oversight from their authorizer—the D.C. Public Charter School Board—and parental exit, these schools are either improving or closing. Charter schools have more than doubled the number of D.C. students they serve over the last decade. They dramatically outperform the city’s (improving) district schools. The city’s choice system is maximizing the market’s virtues and minimizing its risks for children. It’s also worrying the hell out of wealthy D.C. residents, whose property value was once inflated by the relative scarcity of great educational options. Sounds about right to me.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.