About this Issue

Can markets deliver a better education? What do we mean by “better”? And for whom?

Apart from the government itself, education may be the one sector of our society where markets and entrepreneurship play the very smallest roles. For some, that’s exactly how it should be. Communitarians favor public education as a preparation for citizenship, and egalitarians argue that public education is the only thing standing between the economically less fortunate and simple illiteracy. Yet educational equality remains elusive, and it’s less than clear how state-provided education prepares citizens for an adult life in which we freely choose our communal associations.

Our lead essayist, education researcher Kevin Currie-Knight, reviews some of the arguments made in favor of public schooling and finds them wanting; he recommends a greater role for the market in providing educational services. Here to discuss with him are educational experts Deborah Meier of New York University, Marcus A. Winters of of the University of Colorado, and Conor P. Williams of the New America Foundation.

Lead Essay

School Choice: Whether, Why, How?

When we have children, we buy all manner of goods and services for them on the market. Everything from food, clothing, and toys to pediatric care and tutoring services are bought and sold in some kind of market process. When policy wonks and academics talk about how these goods and services should be provided, the general assumption is that the market is the appropriate vehicle. Debate tends to focus on what shape the market should take, including how much regulation or whether the government should subsidize the least well off.  There are many reasons we value markets and choice in most endeavors. Markets allow people to shop for the kinds of goods and services that fit their needs as well as the ability to choose differently if their preferences change, or the producer fails to live up to its promises. Markets also allow for more dynamic entrepreneurship than do goods and services provided by the public sector, and the market’s decentralized trial and error process often results in overall improvements of goods and services over time.

When it comes to education, though, the assumption is generally the reverse: that governments rather than markets are the appropriate providers of schooling. The benefits of markets we recognize in other areas either do not apply to schooling or are trumped by more weighty moral considerations. The value of choice may be trumped by the value of preserving community, for instance. In this essay, I am going to argue both that reasons most often given for education belonging in the public domain aren’t persuasive when compared to the reasons for private provision.

So why do champions of public education argue that governments, rather than the market, should be the primary provider of education? The most well known reason is the idea that since everyone’s education yields external benefits and costs for others, not only should we all help in paying for what we all benefit from, but that not doing so risks individuals making educational decisions without considering how those decisions benefit anyone but themselves.

This public goods rationale should not be overstated, however. The vast majority of an education’s benefits accrues to the individual being educated, and not to the general public. Sure, having a literate or civically minded citizenry benefits everyone, but my own literacy and ability to think about social issues benefits me most of all. At best, then, this rationale justifies some sort of public expenditure on education, not full state provision.

Another argument appeals to notions of equality. As long as we believe in the ideal of equality of opportunity, leaving education to markets means that the well-off can buy quite good education and the less well-off cannot. As long as education is a positional good, whose value is partly relative to how it compares with what others have, a fully private education system might mean that where one ends up in life will be largely based on what kind of education one’s family can afford, where we’d all prefer a system where advantages and disadvantages are based on merit, effort, or something like that.

I have some sympathy with this case. But if education is a positional good, it is unclear why a private system is less fair than a public one; 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 we then have roughly the same problem, with added complications for the housing market. (Note that in a private system, a poor family can save up for a better school rather than buying expensive housing for a better school.) Also, as sympathetic as I am to “equality of opportunity” arguments, they can be tricky in education. As long as it is acknowledged that different students may respond best to different educational forms, it becomes difficult to measure exactly what educational equality is. Given public school systems’ tendency to centralize and standardize over time (often in the name of educational equality), I would suggest that either a universal voucher or tax credit system might provide some measure of equality in the ability to purchase education while allowing each to pursue educational forms that best match their preferences. This is potentially a more equitable result. (Also, as long as markets in education do what markets elsewhere do, it is likely that quality will improve, and costs will decrease, over time thanks to entrepreneurship. That’s not quite equality, but it will allow everyone to purchase better and more affordable education over time.)

There is a further argument that public schools are “public spaces” that are vital to American democracy: private schools can exclude whom they’d like; dissatisfied “customers” can choose another school and avoid trying to change it by democratic participation; public schools accept all comers (who are zoned for that school) and provide a kind of community that goes beyond a group of consumers choosing in and out at will. This is bad for democracy and cosmopolitan pluralism.

Deborah Meier, for instance, writes of voting, democratic governance of schools, as preferable to “voting with one’s feet” in the market: “Voting ’with one’s feet’ is  a market-based form of voting.  But there is another better way. Actually voting.” It is best, in other words, to deal with problems in schools democratically rather than just be able to leave if you are not satisfied.

I think this is wrong on several related counts. First, the argument rests on a category mistake: arguing for democratic governance within schools is no argument against allowing exit rights from schools or market competition among schools; these are different categories of processes. Why assume that allowing exit rights and market competition in education will preclude people from voicing concerns democratically? If anything, my paying for tuition might make it more likely that I will voice concern when my needs are not being met (for a service I paid for)… and I will only “shop around” if my concerns are still left unaddressed. If a good thing about democracy is that everyone can have voice, the bad thing about democracy is that it can create rivalry between voices and ends up privileging the voice that garners majority support, subjecting all other voices to its dictate. For those who fail to get their preferences into the majority consensus, being able to exit and find a “better” school might be important.

Those who see public schools as a community space often have a definition of community different than mine, one where choice and exit rights play little or no part. William Ayers complains (when discussing the virtue of small public schools), that “the term community has come to mean commonality,” and that the core of community is “not that everyone is alike, but that everyone is different. And being in the community means having to deal with that person you dislike or disagree with” (A Simple Justice: The Challenge of Small Schools, p. 105).

To classical liberals like me, a community with exit rights is much preferable. First, it sometimes happens that an issue is resolvable only at extreme personal cost, as some issues of bullying prove to be. Second, a “democratic” resolution may be imposed on all within the school such that not everyone is pleased with the result, much as Catholics were displeased with the State of New York’s decision to placate them watering down the Protestantism in public schools. Third, I don’t see why communities where membership is based on arbitrary criteria like geographic location is, for that reason, more authentic than communities with membership based on deliberate choice and felt commonality. In fact, I suspect that bonds among people in communities are stronger when all parties knows that others are there by choice rather than because they are zoned for the same school community. Lastly, there are moral objections to the idea of allowing money (profit, no less!) to be made on something like educating students. But we allow money-making on a lot of other important things, and we don’t have a moral problem with it. And people already make money within the public school system itself - including textbook makers, teachers, and administrative bureaucrats deriving a salary. If we don’t find it morally objectionable for people within the public system to make money, why do we object if those in a private system do it?

Now, why a private market? First, a private market provides the incentives and the flow of knowledge (via the profit and loss system) that allow for entrepreneurship and innovation in a way that doesn’t happen as well in the public sector. It is a well-worn but true cliché to say that the automotive industry, the computer industry, and almost every other industry we can think of has radically transformed over the years thanks to entrepreneurship: quality improves, prices get lower, or both. Companies try different ideas in attempt to outdo their competitors; customers decide what they prefer. Innovations that work make a profit, and those that don’t disappear. Over the long run, new innovations become old and more affordable to everyone, and still more innovation happens. Education doesn’t generally work like this. It seems to be an area where the service doesn’t change much over time, but gets more expensive by the decade.

A serious objection here is that while innovation can be good, it also leads to missteps - entrepreneurs may create, and consumers may choose, services that turn out to be duds. In education, this problem is particularly worrisome because the mistakes may be cumulative. If I buy a bad car or house, I am out a lot of money, but it will probably not affect my future ability to benefit from houses and cars. If I buy a year of bad education, it may either set me back a year, or worse, it may fill my head with stuff that now needs to be unlearned and retaught.

But there is no good reason governments can’t get education wrong in the same way a private company could. Indeed, they do. The difference is that when governments are the primary education reformers, one reform affects all (or all public-school-attending) students, where if a private company gets it wrong, it affects only those who chose into that company’s model. And in the latter case, at very least, consumers can try to choose out and the market process sends that company a signal via financial losses. It is much harder to detect a bad public school reform - or a good one - in absence of a profit and loss system. I also think that this may be a situation where we confront a trade-off: we can either allow for entrepreneurship and accept that some experiments will fail, or take a more conservative course where we are so worried about guarding against failed experiments that we more or less maintain the status quo or reform at a snail’s pace.

Another advantage of markets is that they allow for pluralism and diversity. I want people to be imbued with a cosmopolitan ethic as much as any “public school as community” advocate. But my cosmopolitanism is one where what counts is not just being together, but having a diversity of options (that includes being with those you want to be with). Information I’ve seen indicates that private schools might do a better job at teaching cosmopolitan tolerance than public schools, and I suspect an important reason for that is that private schools allow people to be educated how they’d like without forcing competing groups to engage in a political struggle about how everyone should be educated. That kind of fight leads to more potential discord among groups than allowing individuals to choose into and out of schools based on their preferences.

The benefits of entrepreneurship and pluralism go beyond cultural difference and extend into current debates about merit pay and other education policy issues. Instead of having national (or even district level) discussions about whether merit pay for teachers is good policy, and how it could be implemented, why not allow different schools to use different hiring, retention, and incentive programs, and the market system to allow teachers to go where they think they can get the best contract, and students to go and stay where they think they can get the best education by the best teachers? (Note that when we discuss the issue of merit pay in the political realm, the assumption seems to be that there is only one best answer to how to hire, retain, and incent teachers, and all we have to do is discover it. In a market, the assumption is that, quite possibly, there is no “best” answer, and different folks might find different answers to be “best.” I find the latter assumption more plausible, of course.)

I will close with some key elements that I think any successful market in education would need: the market (1) must be open to for-profit companies that can scale and put money to R&D better than non-profits, (2) should maintain relatively low cost of entry and exit for new firms in order to best harness entrepreneurship, and (3) include a role for government in enabling and mandating that schools make information about the school and its performance available to consumers.

I started with an observation that in most areas of life, we not only use markets to great effect, but don’t generally question whether markets are the best way to allocate goods and services. There are many arguments about why education is different, but I find them unconvincing. Education is not significantly different. The market should be allowed to work.

Response Essays

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.

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.

Be Careful When You Say “Choice”

I. Me and Choice

“Small, self-governing schools of choice” was my mantra for nearly 40 years—starting in 1973 when my colleagues and I started Central Park East (K-6) in East Harlem’s District 4. This first CPE school was followed by two sister schools in the same district. Within a decade, District 4 had transformed itself. It still had 21 neighborhood schools, but now there were nearly 21 schools of choice, all within approximately one square mile. These schools were overseen by a District 4 elected local school board. Then in 1985 came Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), also located in District 4, but part of a flourishing network of citywide “alternative” high schools led by Stephen Phillips.

We were on a roll, reinventing public education in dozens of district schools in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and others—with support as time went on from the Annenberg Foundation. CPE and CPESS were also among a half dozen similarly adventurous schools who joined the late Ted Sizer in creating the Coalition of Essential Schools. Within half a dozen years, CES attracted the allegiance of over a thousand schools nationwide. We soon concluded that this mantra—small, self-governing schools of choice—aligned well with the ten principles set forth by Sizer. In the mid-90s I was one of several colleagues who jumped on an idea proposed by the Boston teacher’s union and left New York City for the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston. These schools—called Pilots—remained in the system and in the union, under a contract that offered maximal autonomy. From an original few, the Pilot Network grew to include over thirty small, successful endeavors. Of course, in Boston, controlled choice had been the outcome of a long battle for desegregation.

We woke up at the end of the 1990s to discover that “self-governance” and “choice” had been redefined. The marketplace was the answer to governance, and unfettered “private” choice was now said to be the fairest way—for rich or poor. It reminded me of Anatole France’s wise and oft-quoted saying: “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

Even the rationale for smallness had changed. We had thought of it as an asset in building a strong democratic community, allowing for both representative and direct democracy. Sometimes we have to make choices between virtues. When and where one favors choice may depend on what you hold dearest and what you fear most. My fears changed between 1973 and 2013.

The same is true for size and scale. Small schools make playing with democracy a viable idea. But small schools can also be used to more closely control and monitor teachers. It once again depends upon where we want to go—otherwise any road will take you there, as the Scarecrow pointed out to Dorothy.

I’m most worried about the future of our democracy—a concept that has had very few longstanding successes in human history. Only in the past half century have we committed ourselves to a fully inclusive democracy, even if we have not quite achieved it. Maybe that’s what has made it more frightening to some. After all, democracy is not a “natural” form of government—but it’s the only way I think we can promote both equality and individuality, and both freedom and solidarity. I consider all four of these to be “natural” ends, and democracy the critical means. But there’s a constant tension between the four big ideas, and we have tilted in different directions over our history. The choice: we can tell the dissidents, “go back where you came from,” or we can figure out how we can live together. We can encourage each separate “identity” group to create their own ghetto, or we can jointly figure out how we can keep our identity and work together. Schools are perhaps the one and only, if not ideal, place to tackle the essential tensions that hold democracy together.


II. So what’s the bottom line?

All children should have a right to attend a neighborhood school, close to them, as was the case in District 4, while also being free to apply to non-zoned schools or zoned schools within the larger neighborhood—if spaces are available. In the latter case a lottery-like system should be the responsibility of the local elected school board. In New York City these days, almost none of the above is true anymore. But District 4 proved it could be otherwise—while remaining a public school. (See The Nation, March 4, 1991, “Choice Can Save Public Education.”)

All children should have a right to attend a school where everyone’s voice is taken seriously. Since there are no neutral measures of success, the likelihood is that in the absence of a democratic governing system the marketplace will divide us by class and race. Some voices will thereby count a lot more than others. Competing for the “best” students, the “best” scores, with the “best” PR while making the most profits is not self-governance. In the process of building our fragile democracy we need to make it harder, not easier, to make decisions based on the lowest common denominator—be it our own children’s competitive advantage, or whether the school makes a profit. Of course, I worry about my own children, but finding solutions that are good for my own and for others is what democratic habits of heart and mind make easier to do.

This is easier to accomplish if all the constituents are part of the governing body, and all—parents, teachers, community members, and perhaps students—have a stake in each other’s opinions and votes. Playing with how to do this from the perspective of all the different constituents is itself an amazing learning experience. It was exciting to actually have to reconsider the same issues that confronted our Founding Fathers, and to make amendments when our original ideas failed us.

The impact of inequalities of wealth and status. It’s important to realize that inequality comes at a price. One price is in our international test scores. We probably all agree that children who happened to be born to families with fewer advantages to pass on, will pass fewer on; just as others pass on each and every advantage they happen to possess: “Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose,” as Billie Holiday noted in song. Even the way we define “best” is a reflection of who is best positioned to do the defining. (See Lani Guiner and Susan Sturm, Who’s Qualified?, 2001) Finding ways to protect ourselves from these “naturally” occurring phenomena is important. Privatization—vouchers or charters—makes it harder, not easier, to level the playing field. It locks us even further into our separate compartments. But equally dangerous is pretending that schools alone can solve the inequity of inequality.

All children benefit from environments where empathy and solidarity seem natural and right. Democracy is not easy to describe or define, but we know it thrives best when empathy and solidarity are part of daily practice. Pluralism makes both harder. The habits that make these possible are not guaranteed by our shared genetic history. They need to be learned. We need time to practice, practice, practice the habits a democracy needs. Fewer than ever are the schools in which this kind of social and intellectual work goes on—and where we all must hear each other out. In fact, too many schools today actually encourage a narrow focus on one’s own child’s immediate competitive self-interests. Seeing everyone else as a competitor for limited status and money is, we know, not the best of motives for high quality work, nor for human solidarity.


III. When all is said and done.

In short, democracy is the form of accountability we’ve chosen—invented as a way to hold the scoundrels to account. If we are afraid to use democracy to hold our educational system accountable, why would we imagine it’s more suited to holding any other institutions to account? Democracy thus becomes an empty cliché.

The old English “public” schools served to train England’s ruling class to protect the greater good of the nation. How does that translate when we claim that all adults are members of the ruling class? How can we imagine our children will understand and value this preposterous idea if they never experience it? What does it mean for our future if we see democracy as too dangerous to let ordinary citizens in on it, above all in making decisions about matters closest to them?

I’m biased. My life and the lives of the young people I taught have been immeasurably improved by the years we spent with each other across lines of race, class, abilities, and talents. Spending my time in a community that was respected and expected to make decisions together, a community where we could also see the impact of our decisions and change course when we chose to. It was not ideal, but it was not utopian either.

If schooling is only a way to individually “get ahead” of others—a sentiment I have certainly at times shared—it is hard to see why the general public should be stakeholders. There will always be a top 10% and a bottom 10% and 50% will always be the norm. It’s precisely because schools in a democracy promise to provide a “public good” on behalf of the 100%. A promise they may never fulfill to everyone’s approval. That’s what universal public education aspires to be, which even the best of the private independent schools I know do not and cannot aspire to. Schools, like neighborhoods and countries, are not merely private “choices.” Sometimes they are not that at all—but just the one place a family found to settle in. At their best, choices also call upon the values that communities are vigorously prepared to cherish and defend.


IV. Why all this fuss?

I’ll admit, I view this whole educational “crisis” as a way to turn our attention away from the other crises we face. Why are we prepared to be tougher on school personnel, for example, than we are on hedge fund or big bank managers. As my mother used to say, watch out when someone declares there’s a crisis. They are probably trying to sell you something that with more thought you’d not buy! The fuss is worth it if it helps us look deeper and acknowledge the existence of some very deep-seated doubt about the viability of the democratic idea.

Yes, schools have been and are unequal, badly segregated by race and class. Yes, they are often disrespectful places for children, families and teachers. Yes, rich and poor alike find schools more boring than challenging. Few classrooms deal respectfully with important intellectual or moral issues. Yes. We need reform. This was the message of Ted Sizer’s popular Horace’s Compromise (1984)—a riveting description of his visits to secondary schools throughout the nation—public and private. The market place won’t solve this any better than it has solved our “housing crisis.” These are not marketplace issues, but moral issues. In traditional terms publicly operated schools are doing better than market place housing at leveling the field. Given the high rate of poverty in America compared to our competitors, even our standardized test scores are right up there with the rest. Ditto the number of years our students spend in school or the number of actual “instructional” hours devoted to tested subjects per day. We “out perform” on both counts.


V. What next?

We need to remind ourselves that between the early 70s and the late 90s we witnessed an unprecedented “bottom up” reform movement. Never were there more individual entrepreneurs struggling to make their ideas viable, with relatively little outside support. Some of that still exists, even if in a distorted form, in the small-scale mom-and-pop charters. We needs to join together in plotting next steps.

What the rich want for their children is, we must remind ourselves, largely what all children have a right to. John Dewey had that right. But it’s interesting that what the rich do not care about when choosing schools are the length of the day or school year. There are two things they do look for: small class sizes and the “extras”— music, art, travel, debate, hobbies, and sports. There is, alas, an unspoken third thing the rich look for: who their kids will be mixing with. We cannot forget that.

The latest school reforms are, in the name of equity, once again offering something different to the rich and poor. There is reason behind such madness, but it’s not a strategy aimed at improving democracy. Its potentially worse than a huge distraction. It’s leading us down a dangerous road that we cannot afford to take. I hope we don’t squander this invented crisis by assuming that we all are equally concerned about sleeping under the bridge, or begging on the street. We cannot just let the market place take its course. We have an obligation to put our hand on the steering wheel, directing the future, not just passively accepting it—if we want badly enough for everyone to sleep safely in their own bed. 

The Conversation

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.

Why Not Small, Self-Governing, Private Schools of Choice?

Now that I have responded to Marcus and Conor, it is time to respond to Deborah. I have long admired Deborah’s writings and efforts on behalf of “small schools” initiatives, and I believe I have read her excellent book In Schools We Trust a few times now. Yet I find there is much to disagree with in Deborah’s response to me, which is why I want to respond to her separately.

First, let’s start with some potential areas of agreement. Deborah and I both, I think, want to see schools that function autonomously. We are both, I think, firmly against the idea of (at least state-controlled) top-down standardization of schools. And, to some degree, Deborah and I both agree that choice can be a good thing, even if it is just “being free to apply to non-zoned schools or zoned schools within the larger neighborhood—if spaces are available.” Nonetheless, I am not quite sure I have a handle on why Deborah is so strongly for “small self-governing schools of choice” but adamantly against small private self-governing schools of choice. Her essay goes some way toward clearing this up, but I still think she is wrong to embrace the one but stop short of the other.

First, I think Deborah is against privatization because she believes in the importance of keeping school governance democratic, which she doesn’t believe could or is likely to happen in a market of private schools. Schools should be places where “all the constituents are part of the governing body, and all—parents, teachers, community members, and perhaps students—have a stake in each other’s opinions and votes.” Markets, and their “vote with your feet” ethic, won’t accomplish this, Deborah thinks.

But as I’ve said already, this is a category mistake. How schools operate internally and how markets operate are two different levels of operation, and there is no reason democratic schools could not operate within a “vote with your feet” market. (An analogy: just because my local government is democratic doesn’t mean that all homes within that area have to make household decisions democratically, because local governance and household governance are two different levels of operation.) Just because markets allow people to shop around for schools that they think work best for them does not mean that schools cannot handle internal operations democratically (if, and maybe this is where Deborah objects, that is what customers of that school prefer).

I believe she makes a similar error when she writes:

In short, democracy is the form of accountability we’ve chosen—invented as a way to hold the scoundrels to account. If we are afraid to use democracy to hold our educational system accountable, why would we imagine it’s more suited to holding any other institutions to account? Democracy thus becomes an empty cliché.

But just because we use democracy to govern our political sphere doesn’t mean we therefore must use it in other domains of life as well. Yes, the United States is a democratic republic, where we vote for our representatives as a way to hold them accountable (well, ostensibly, anyway). But that is no reason why we should, say, hold the makers of our cars, electronics, or… schools… accountable with democratic, rather than market, processes. And the fact that we choose what cars we buy via the market rather than through collective deliberation and voting doesn’t mean that “democracy thus becomes an empty cliché.” It is rather than democracy may be good in one area but bad in others. And that might be true for schools. (And besides: if, as Deborah writes in her response, she wants schools to function autonomously, telling them that they must function democratically seems at odds with that. Could they use their autonomy to function non-democratically if they wanted?)

In short, if schools want to run their affairs democratically, they can certainly do it in a marketplace. Of course, they don’t have to, and whether they will probably depends on whether customers respond positively to it. (Maybe Deborah doesn’t like the possibility that, as Myron Lieberman conjectures, “Most people do not want participation. They want their institutions to work so that participation is not necessary” [Privatization and Educational Choice, 150]). At any rate, there is no reason that (a) markets’ non-democratic nature prohibits schools within markets from governing themselves democratically, or (b) because democracies work for choosing politicians means that they must be put to work for choosing schools and school policies.

Along these lines, I also think that Deborah writes as if the exit rights provided by markets will undermine the use of voice within schools that she believes is essential to democratic participation. In other words, if I am dissatisfied and I know that I can just shop around for a better school, Deborah seems concerned that l will be less likely to voice my concerns within the school. This may have some truth to it, but exit and voice are just not mutually exclusive or even close to it. Sometimes, the fact that I can shop around (and am attending a school that I chose) can enhance my desire to voice concern when I a not getting what I chose into. Recently, I was reminded of this when my cable service stopped working well. I put in a fair amount of time on the phone with customer service and tech support. This was not in spite, but because of, the fact that it was a service I’d purchased when I could have gone elsewhere.

It occurred to me that, were I just assigned a cable service that I could not choose out of, I might have just resorted to accepting my fate (“Can’t change cable services anyway, so just grin and bear it!”). And on the cable company’s end, the fact that they know I can choose exit probably makes it more likely that they will be motivated to fix problems I voice than if they knew I was a captive customer. If Deborah wants people to use their voice in schools, it may just be that – like with the cable company – the best way to motivate customers’ use of voice (and the company responding to them) is to enhance their freedom of choice and give them the same sort of purchasing power (and hence, truly vested interest) that I had with my cable company.

In general, I think Deborah also has an overly expansive view of democracy and what its necessary conditions are. Democracy (or democratic republicanism) is a way for us to hold our leaders accountable by having a vote as to who (some of!) our leaders are. To do this does not require the kind of solidarity that would be undermined if we weren’t educated in common spaces. It might require our learning some common things, like how our government works, how to think about political issues, and how to read, but that can certainly be done in schools of choice as opposed to common schools. Deborah writes that “we can tell the dissidents, ‘go back where you came from,’ or we can figure out how we can live together. We can encourage each separate ‘identity’ group to create their own ghetto, or we can jointly figure out how we can keep our identity and work together.” But these are two very false dichotomies.

Allowing people to attend the schools they’d like is neither telling them to go back to where they came from or create ghettos if they can’t, nor is it undermining our ability to live together and figure out how to work together. It does, admittedly, fall short of forcing “us” to keep whatever identity “we” have, because choice allows people to create and maintain their own preferred social identity. Yet I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Democracy does not demand that we have national (or other unchosen) solidarity, or that we live together in any other way than in broadly geographic terms, or that we have anything more than the ability to come together once in a while to elect (again, some of) those who govern us. And, since Deborah supports the idea that we should be zoned for neighborhood schools “while also being free to apply to non-zoned schools or zoned schools within the larger neighborhood—if spaces are available,” wouldn’t even this choice proposal undermine her desire to use schools to enhance solidarity and democracy? Why is this proposal non-solidarity-threatening, but mine is equivalent to telling dissidents to go back to from where they came or create their own ghetto?

Last, Deborah is concerned that markets will exacerbate inequality. Honestly, my concern is less with inequality than quality of service both for all and particularly the most vulnerable. This reminds me of a conference I attended recently where, after arguing for markets in education, a respondent asked if I could name a market that provided equal goods and services to all. I responded that while I couldn’t, I was also at a loss to name a market that didn’t, over time, provide increased quality of service, reduced price for service, or both to all customers. It is the latter that I think benefits the least well off more than how the service they get compares with those of other income groups. (To put it differently, I’d rather see everyone get decent but unequal service than I would everyone’s service be equal but subpar.)

Those who believe that the American public school system, as unequal as it has always been, has a chance of producing even relatively equal education for all (bearing in mind that if the poor have little economic pull, they probably have little political pull), need to argue, rather than assume, their position. Also, keep in mind that, as Marcus pointed out, I did not argue that the government had no role in education; if inequality is a concern, we could design a voucher system, or something like it, where the government disperses funding for education in a way that ensures that the poor can still purchase a decent education. If anything, though, I think that markets – yes, with their profit motive – offer producers more incentive to deliver the poor (and all of us) the best education possible.

So, Deborah, if you want schools to function autonomously, if you want to form the strongest communities of trust within schools, and if you are willing to allow some level of choice anyway, why not small, self-governing, private schools of choice?           

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.

Educational Standards and the Burden of Proof

As Conor says, there is a decent level of agreement between us on certain things. Imagine this classical liberal’s joy when his progressive interlocutor states that “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.” (And readers who did not read the article Conor linked to in that statement should do so.) As a former public school teacher who remembers students being asked to leave our Baltimore County high school and return to their zoned-for–Baltimore City school, I find it illustrates the travesty of our current system.) I still hesitate to call it a market, because it is the house that is chosen, and the school comes along for the ride. But we’ve had that discussion before, so rehearsing it only spins our wheels. And it is a small disagreement.

Also, I couldn’t be more delighted when Conor writes that “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.” Well, at least we know that Conor and I seemingly have the same goals!

But the Cato Institute didn’t invite us to agree on things, and there are some important points of disagreement to discuss. Conor rightly notes that, when discussing statistics that the government might mandate that schools make easily available to consumers, I only included data on “output” – graduation rates, teacher to student ratios, and the like. He suggests that while this data has some use, he’d push me “on the question of the state mandating that schools take common assessments and share those data with the public.”

I was very careful only to include “output” data on my list, because I am reluctant to give governments power to mandate common assessments that all schools must have students take. To Conor’s point, though, I do understand the potential benefit of this approach. Markets function best when people are able to make well-informed choices, and this is most likely to happen when consumers are able, as they say, to compare “apples to apples” by seeing different schools’ results on common metrics. (For this reason, Myron Lieberman, a pro-market writer on education whom I much admire, even suggested that choice systems should encourage schools to sign on to a “nationally accepted” (but not mandatory) curriculum on which standardized tests would presumably be built. (Public Education, an Autopsy, 275).

Yet, when considering the potential costs and benefits of such a device (state-mandated standardized testing), I still see the costs as outweighing the benefits. In brief, I believe that enforced standardized testing dampens two of the best aspects of markets – innovation and diversity. But to the degree that standardization becomes necessary, there is still good reason to think that markets are more than capable of developing the kind of standardization that – because ultimately voluntary – doesn’t endanger these two features of markets.

First, the perils of standardized testing. Mandating that all students take state-mandated standardized tests allows schools to have some flexibility – flexibility in how they teach and run their day-to-day operations. But those who have taught in k-12 settings know that standardized (summative) testing has a deceptively strong impact on how schools do everything else. To put it simply, those who control the tests indirectly control the curriculum: I still recall being a high school teacher planning my science courses, where the first thing we did each year was look at past editions of Maryland’s High School Assessments, which greatly impacted what we did during the school year.

As long as a test is “high stakes” (and the idea that a school’s results on this test will impact the way your school compares to other schools makes it so), that test will limit what schools feel they are able to do within the curriculum. The implications for education design are often greater than for other products and services. Standardized tests that essentially tell schools what students should know at certain ages are mandating how they should do a large part of their job.

Also, as I’ve argued elsewhere, state mandated tests allow one group to hold a monopoly on telling us what students should know at what age, which is not only staggeringly difficult to do in a world of diverse learners, but especially dangerous to have monopolized. If we are worried that schools, left to their own, might get bad standards or create bad assessments, imagine what would happen if a state or a nation were to get it wrong. Even my hypothetical makes a big assumption: It assumes that in a world of diverse learners, we can still know what “wrong” is regarding standards and assessments. It may be that different standards or assessments work well for some kids, but are poor matches for others.

Just as Hayek argued that no person or group could ever have all the knowledge, including local knowledge held by economic actors, to plan an economy, I argue the same for education: no person or group can possibly hold enough knowledge to know what assessments will appropriately gauge whether we are “properly educated.” So, while I understand the potential for standardized testing to allow for “apples to apples” comparisons among schools in a market, I worry that doing that will force all schools to be apple orchards, when there may be benefit to allowing some to be orange groves or grape vineyards. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

What are my solutions? Well, the classical liberal in me prefers voluntary solutions whenever possible. Therefore, I’d first like to suggest that a great many industries have – without government help – standardized their services in order that customers can shop among interchangeable services. (See here, specifically section 1.2 and 1.5.) The internet has standardized HTML as its dominant language without government assistance. CDs, DVDs, and MP3s became standard containers for media without government assistance, as did QWERTY keyboards become the default style of keyboard and (at least for now) HDMI cables become the standard multimedia cable. What I suspect could happen – if inter-school comparison does become the problem for consumers that we suppose it will – is that organizations like the nonprofit Educational Testing Service or for-profit Pearson Assessments will introduce their own tests, allowing schools to choose among competing alternatives. Schools may have incentive to choose into a particular testing service because doing so will provide parents with a ready way to compare the school’s data with other schools that use that test. It will also signal to parents the school’s confidence that their school will yield good results on such tests.

If something like this did not happen, I might be willing to consider a role for the state in creating a particular testing system that it believes would provide the most useful gauge on the quality of education schools are providing. But from there, I’d prefer that states only make the test available for schools to use voluntarily.

Both methods, of course, are speculative. And neither, I’m afraid, affords any sort of full guarantee that all schools will have common data to share. But both solutions are closer to what I’d be comfortable with, largely because they achieve at least a level of standardization of data, while allowing schools the flexibility to innovate and use such diverse approaches to education as they choose. That way, a Montessori school doesn’t have to change the way it educates because state tests tell it that it must prove that all xth graders know y in z detail. It can choose not to use any standardized testing, or perhaps use one developed by the American Montessori Society, and allow parents shopping for a school to decide it that is good enough for them.

I should also address Conor’s last paragraph, where he suggests that “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.”

Fair enough, but I hope Conor and others understand why this is a tough one in the current political climate, where suggestions that we run the experiment are either met with a flat “No!” or, at very most, “Okay, but we’ll only let you try it under conditions limited enough that your experiment will bear no real resemblance to an actual market.”

When the market is limited to a small sliver of the population, when prices are capped or set by the state, and when for-profit companies may not enter the market – these among other features of current voucher plans – it is unfair to look at these as indicative of how markets work. I don’t want to overstate this, of course, because good data exists showing markets do work well in education, even in the very limited and constrained spaces where we allow them. Even most studies showing markets not leading to better educational results seem to show that, at worst, they do no worse than public schools.

So, alas, at this point, the case must be largely theoretical. But that case has been made in spades, from folks on all sides of the ideological spectrum. Of course, the strongest theoretical case for markets in education is that we use markets to great effect in just about every other area of our lives. Going back to my original post, there not terribly strong reason to think that the market forces that work well in so many other areas will stop working in education. Beyond that, there are very good reasons to think that government bureaucracies will manage schools much worse than private actors in markets. Markets provide both a profit motive and a competitive process that spurs innovation and efficiency in production, as well as a decentralized system that allows producers and consumers to adjust to changing circumstance better than a centralized and quasi-monopolized system. I am sure that Conor is familiar with this literature.

Is this proof that markets will give better results than a public system? As long as proof means empirical evidence, not exactly. But it is not exactly a faith, as Conor suggests, either. It is pretty strong economic reasoning, and the kind of strong economic reasoning that seems to bear out in other industries. It does seem to me that the burden of proof really should be on those who suggest that what works in almost every other area just couldn’t work in this one.