School Choice Needs to Prove Itself for the Less Wealthy

I admit that I agreed to write for Cato with a measure of trepidation. As a progressive who enthusiastically supports (for example) a robust public safety net, socialized health care, and substantial environmental regulations to forestall anthropogenic climate change, I was a bit anxious about the reception I’d find here. The raised eyebrows and shocked emails I received from leftist friends after my first post was published only added to my concerns.

That’s why it’s been encouraging to find so much more agreement than disagreement in the discussion so far. Honestly, I’m tempted to simply leave things as they stand.

That said, there remains considerable distance between Kevin’s preferred educational policies and mine—so surely there must be something left to discuss. More than anything, I suppose that I’d like to offer a few suggestions about where and why we disagree—and push Kevin a bit more on some of the things he brings up in his response to my post.

Let me start with a point of agreement and a pedantic clarification. I was especially cheered to read Kevin’s acknowledgement that educational choice is a “spectrum,” rather than in terms of a binary set of choice or not-choice. He includes this as a parenthetical aside after insisting that our current educational market—which relies heavily on the real estate as a proxy—is an unwieldy way of allocating education. This was precisely my point when I called our current state of affairs “an awkward, unacknowledged market.” Would I characterize this as “school choice”? Not really. But there’s certainly a market for those who want to buy into stronger public schools and possess the means to do so.

Consider: a parent with substantial resources in the Washington, D.C. area has a few options beyond what we usually consider as school choice policies (charter schools, vouchers, etc). She can purchase a house in a city neighborhood with stronger neighborhood schools or in the suburbs (which are host to some of the nation’s best public school systems), or she can purchase a private school education for her children. There are plenty of reasons to choose one or the other of these options—but one nice thing about utilizing our public educational market is that she’ll get a refund. Once spent, private school tuition is essentially unrecoverable as a material asset. By buying a house in Bethesda, Maryland, she’ll purchase a high-quality public education for her children while simultaneously investing in a robust real estate market.

I press this point for a few reasons. First, it’s to note that Kevin and I are equally unimpressed by the efficacy of our current educational market. This is not meaningful choice, nor was I suggesting so in my first post. Second, I’d suggest that Kevin may be understating the importance of this factor in the real estate market. It’s not a coincidence that “White Flight” from American urban centers began just as school desegregation efforts gained momentum. It’s not a coincidence that the efforts to remake Washington, D.C.’s school boundaries and feeder patterns that I mentioned in my first post are extraordinarily controversial.

This is mostly pedantry on my part, but it illustrates the big challenge with school choice markets. They are not spontaneous, nor are they (naturally) orderly. Like all markets, as Kevin agreed, we need to provide institutional structures that shape a market “based on what we expect it to do.” Our current educational market has such an extraordinarily high resource barrier to entry that it essentially closes off school choice to the upper- and upper-middle classes. Not good enough.

I argued that the state could shape the market by means of several rules that would encourage school transparency. Kevin responds that educational markets would likely prompt the launch of private companies that would collect and disseminate information for parents. I tend to think that he’s right about this—existing choice systems have sparked the development of tools like GreatSchools, MySchoolDC, and others. They include the data he’s comfortable having states mandate, things like “graduation rates, teacher to student ratios, [and] college acceptance rates for high schools.”

Those are relatively useful. But data on educational “inputs,” such as the school’s student-teacher ratio, teachers’ credentials, curricular offerings, and so forth, offer fairly limited information on whether the school is effective or not. Research generally shows that these sorts of data can influence the quality of education, but that none of them are particularly determinative. For instance, Montessori schools generally have much larger class sizes than traditional classrooms as a matter of pedagogical theory. Knowing that about a particular school tells parents almost nothing about whether the school works well or not.

Long-term data on high school graduation rates or college placement statistics are similarly limited. They offer, at best, a dated, wide-angle picture of school efficacy for parents who need data on the present-day performance of a school’s kindergarten or third grade (or whichever grade their children are starting).

This is why I’d continue to push Kevin on the question of the state mandating that schools take common assessments and share those data with the public. These are much more powerful data, as they offer a common benchmark against which parents can measure otherwise very-different schools (GreatSchools and MySchoolDC include them).

It’s enormously important that we get this right, especially when it comes to children from low-income families, who frequently arrive in pre-K or kindergarten well behind their wealthier peers. Our existing real-estate-fueled market generally assigns these students the least effective schools and teachers along with fewer educational resources. That’s a travesty, especially given what we know about the path-dependency of educational outcomes. Students who are reading below grade level at the end of first grade have only about a one in ten chance of ever catching up. As a commodity, education—especially for students from low-income families, especially in the early years—is uniquely difficult to replace. Parents who buy a bad year of kindergarten may not be able to recover from that mistake by buying a better year of first grade.

Which is why it’s critical that we establish a choice market that extends as much choice as possible to as many parents as possible while also maximizing the good choices available to less-wealthy parents. To flip Kevin’s rejoinder to me, it’s not enough to insist that the “public school system… produces inequality too.” Advocates for more school choice ought to be able to show that they can improve on the existing system beyond a general faith that markets always “raise the quality and/or lower the cost of all groups’ products over time.” Given that the quality of existing school choice markets varies considerably, advocates need to make a strong, specific case that expanded choice will help address this problem. Otherwise, it’s hard to justify remaking the current educational market. After all, it generally serves wealthy students pretty well.

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.