A Public Problem, A Private Solution

I’m grateful for the opportunity to engage in this conversation about the potential for school choice to improve American education. In the lead essay for this discussion, Kevin Currie-Knight argues that private providers are at least as likely to offer students a high quality education under a universal voucher or tax-credit program as are today’s traditional public school systems. I am with Kevin in spirit, if not on some of the details.

I do not find Kevin’s argument against the potential “public benefits” from public schooling to be particularly compelling for our current purposes. I’m inclined to agree that the vast majority of the benefits from education are personal. Nonetheless, the public benefits from education can still be meaningful and thus worth our consideration. Of course, the extent of such spillovers is a question for empirical research. But it is hard for me to imagine that the economy and broader society wouldn’t meaningfully benefit if a large number of students who exit today’s public schools without productive skills instead received an education putting them on paths to college and fruitful careers. Economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have convincingly argued that such educational improvements were essential to America’s rise in the twentieth century and also to keeping income inequality in check.

Regardless of the existence of spillovers, the state of the current education system presents us with a moral issue that needs to be addressed. There are examples of both excellence and poor performance in schools across all settings. But low academic performance is not distributed randomly. Though they have made real improvements in recent years, the quality of urban and rural schools in particular continues to lag, even after accounting for student demographics. If we think that schooling makes a difference—as I do, and as empirical research suggests—then this suggests that there is something systematic about the quality of schooling at least in these struggling areas that can and should be addressed.

Where Kevin has it exactly right is that we need to make a distinction between government funding for education and governmental operation of schools. This is the heart of the matter. For too long, and despite the evidence, too many people have remained convinced that the only solution to the problem of public schools lies entirely within the structure of the current public schools.

First, a quick note on governmental sponsorship of education. Kevin has not directly argued for a “pure” market education system in which parents pay for schooling out of their own pockets in the same way they pay for groceries—without government assistance except in the cases of poverty. However, particularly given Cato’s audience, I think that it is worth noting there is reason to suspect that if left to their own devices parents might purchase less education for their children than they would like, and less education than they could with government financial assistance. For instance, one potential issue is that biologically, children tend to come along when parents are young and lack the resources to pay for education. Perhaps such issues could be addressed by the market or some careful regulation. But the risk that kids wouldn’t be adequately educated without government sponsorship is real and should be taken seriously. Education does not meet the technical definition of a public good. But government has a real role to play in ensuring that kids at least have educational opportunity.

But, as Kevin correctly points out, the government can pay for education without operating the schools. And even if the government operates some schools—which I think it should—it does not follow that they should base enrollment entirely on residence or that they should be run by a large bureaucratic system.

The residential requirement is particularly problematic. If my daughter attends a public school that I don’t like, and if I would like her to try the public school down the road, I will need to move in order to make that happen. Fortunately for me, I have adequate resources to make that a feasible choice. But many parents don’t.

The “exit rights” that Kevin discusses are essential. If the government-run school that your kid attends is bad, then the government should at the very least permit you to send your kids to another government-run school. Or even better, as Kevin suggests, it should give you the means you require to send your kid to a school run by someone else.

As an economist, I ultimately depend on convincing empirical research to drive my decisionmaking. That said: In order to really understand the importance of exit rights one should spend some time observing a bad public school. These schools do exist. They are awful and discouraging places. I’d be shocked if anyone in this exchange disagreed with those two basic statements.

If you are someone who likes to argue that all public schools are equal, take this test: Leaving aside transportation time, would you support a policy that randomly assigned your kid to any public school in your state? In your district? If you’d rather not accept that policy, then you probably believe that there are meaningful differences in the quality of public schools. (If you would accept it, I’d hazard to guess that you live in a residential area with underperforming public schools.)

And now the economist in me comes out: The best reason to support meaningful—if not universal—government-funded school choice is that we have every reason to suspect that it improves educational outcomes. The gains are often not as large as many had hoped when school choice programs were first introduced. But the gains are real. And there is no reason thus far to believe that introducing school choice harms anyone.

We now have several gold-standard, randomized field trials demonstrating that students who apply for voucher programs make academic gains if they are given the opportunity to attend a private school. Similar random assignment studies have found large benefits to attending public charter schools—publicly funded schools of choice that operate independent of many of the surrounding school district’s regulations.

It is true that a series of high-quality (though not random assignment) studies by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has found that the quality of charter schools varies dramatically across states, and charters are overall no more effective than surrounding traditional public schools. But this result isn’t surprising given the wide variation in the type of charters operating across the nation and differences in the regulations governing charter schools across states. In addition, charter opponents who point to the CREDO research as demonstrating that charters don’t work need to explain why this research shows enormous gains from attending charters in some school systems with high-performing charter sectors, particularly New York City. That is, even the research most cited by school choice opponents suggests that school choice can make a difference under the right conditions.

In addition, there is no meaningful empirical evidence confirming the common claim that school choice programs—whether charter or voucher—harm academic performance in traditional public schools. Nor, it is important to point out, does the research suggest that school choice dramatically lifts all boats, as many advocates had hoped. Rather, the evidence suggests that school choice programs have little effect on the performance of traditional public schools; if they do have an effect, it is a mild but positive one.

In summary, education is a public problem that requires a government solution. The government is in the best position to fund widespread education. But it has demonstrated itself not to be the best provider of education. School choice programs offer a way to fund education while also offering parents educational options when their nearby school does not meet their needs.

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.