Independence days for schools

A few weeks ago one of the commentators on this blog noted that I have a “libertarian” view of education. I’ve thought about this some, and decided that this label is partly true. But only partly.

What’s true is that I believe that competitive markets almost always produce better goods for consumers, even as they make life more difficult for producers. That’s what just about any introductory economics textbook teaches. (I always ask my economics students why, as future entrepreneurs, they want to grow up to be monopolists). And that’s the lesson countries like Britain learned the hard way when they first nationalized, then privatized, industries such as railroads, coal and steel.

When public schools are run as a government monopoly, they’re too often run to benefit producers at the expense of consumers. I’m not attributing ill will to administrators or teachers. I’m just stating that without a competitive goad, institutions do not face the same pressure to improve the services they provide . . . and that monopolists always, quite sensibly, resist competition.

At the same time, while I don’t believe that education needs to be a public monopoly, I DO believe that it’s a public good, which the government should provide to all children. And once taxpayers are spending money for a public good, they have a right – indeed a responsibility – to ensure that their money is being well spent. This means that even a competitive education market will require scrutiny, and regulation. Libertarians like neither government scrutiny nor regulation, so in this regard I am NOT  libertarian.

What brought on all this reflection was an article that just arrived in my inbox from today’s Economist “highlights.” The article is entitled: “A 20-year lesson: Evidence from America and Britain Shows that Independence for Schools Works.”

Here’s an excerpt from what struck me as a balanced and fair-minded article. Note that the Economist also calls for combining independence and competition with necessary levels of regulation. I guess the magazine is “sort of” libertarian, too.

Charter schools are controversial, for three reasons. They represent an “experiment” or “privatisation”. They largely bypass the unions. And their results are mixed. In some states—Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri—the results of charter pupils in maths and English are significantly better than those of pupils in traditional public schools. In others—Arizona and Ohio—they have done badly.

Yet the virtue of experiments is that you can learn from them; and it is now becoming clear how and where charter schools work best. Poor pupils, those in urban environments and English-language learners fare better in charters (see article). In states that monitor them carefully and close down failing schools quickly, they work best. And one great advantage is that partly because most are free of union control, they can be closed down more easily if they are failing.

This revolution is now spreading round the world. In Britain academies, also free from local-authority control, were pioneered by the last Labour government. At first they were restricted to inner-city areas where existing schools had failed. But the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has turbocharged their growth, and has launched “free schools”, modelled on a successful Swedish experiment, which have even more independence. By the end of this year half of all British schools will be academies or free schools. Free schools are too new for their performance to be judged; in academies, though, results for GCSEs (the exams pupils take at 15 or 16) are improving twice as fast as those in the state sector as a whole.

It is pretty clear now that giving schools independence—so long as it is done in the right way, with the right monitoring, regulation and safeguards from the state—works. Yet it remains politically difficult to implement. That is why it needs a strong push from national governments. Britain is giving school independence the shove it needs. In America, artificial limits on the number of charter schools must be ended, and they must get the same levels of funding as other schools.|hig|7-5-2012|2690811|37196165|


  1. Yak_Herder

    My brother-in-law and I had a spirited (and completely friendly) debate about this very thing the other day. He’s concerned about the quality of education his children are receiving in North Carolina and is moving at least one of them to a charter school.

    A few things came up:
    1. He doesn’t have “40 hours a week” to spend figuring everything out.
    2. He feels the local school district is unresponsive and impossible to navigate.
    3. He feels the quality of public education is in decline.
    4. He feels like the teachers at the charter school are better.
    5. He feels like the students attending charter schools are better prepared for college.
    6. “Public Education” wants it to be this way.
    7. He wants to have a voucher program, selecting teachers from a pool. He sees a pool of teachers that parents choose from to hire their services. The competitive market would rule. In his mind, quality AND salaries would go up. I asked a simple question, “Where do they meet?” He indicated they (the teachers) would provide the learning space and materials.

    I suggested the following:
    1. One of the biggest problems I see is the apparent abandonment of responsibility on the part of parents with respect to their child’s education. Schools are not a free and fancy version of day care. He’s not even a member of the PTA.
    2. School districts should be no larger than a single high school and the schools that feed it.
    3. I asked how he would measure decline. He (an controller/accountant) had no idea.
    4. I asked how he would measure teacher quality. He had no idea. I further suggested that if he could, many of the other issues could be addressed. And even further, asked how in the world he would know, since he is so far removed from the school!
    5. I mentioned that measurements are being made with respect to the performance of charter schools versus traditional schools. Despite several clear advantages, the results are decidedly mixed. We also talked about the adverse affects of the “involved parents” leaving a school.
    6. I adamantly disagreed with the perception that “Public Education” wants things as they are. First of all, who in the heck is “Public Education”?
    7. We talked about his vision of vouchers. It’s completely untenable.

    We ran the numbers. He’s rethinking his plan.

  2. Howard Beale

    So what is the verdict for charters in Utah? I see some good ones and ones that not so good. I wonder if these (charter) parents, as Yak Herder seems to suggest, got more involved in their own neighborhood schools, how things would change.

    I have actually had my children in private, public and charter schools. The private school loved my daughter but jettisoned my son after three weeks because he was a challenge. The charter school accepted by daughter on the lottery but my son was denied (therefore, charters are exclusionary because they don’t take everyone, check out the “winners” and ‘losers” in the “Waiting for Superman” movie). We liked the charter but too bad we couldn’t get our son in. My daughter, is now in a public middle school and it’s been the best of all the schools she attended (one private, one public and the charter). Our son is now doing well in a public school that again has to accept all no matter the challenges, no lottery losers.

    I feel I know the different experiences each have to offer. When parents get involved as they are in the public school she now attends, it is probably the best option. It seems to have the strongest teachers. Its administrators are not puppets of the most active parents but are defenders of all the children. This is sometimes a problem in some public schools certainly but in charters and private, the most active parents control the show and this might not be good for all the kids.

  3. Carolyn Sharette

    Great article Mary -thanks for sharing what is happening in other countries.

    The charter school experiment is so valuable to those of us who want improvement in public education because it gives us information on what works and what doesn’t work. The fact that the results are “mixed” is a GOOD thing, not a reflection of mediocrity or failure, but a statement that some practices really are more effective than others and if we want to improve education we now have some information on how that can be done by analyzing the successful charter schools.

    Unfortunately, mainstream public education isn’t all that interested in learning those lessons or implementing the successful practices being proven in charter schools. We continue to go on, year after year, with educators refusing to look at the data, identify the successful practices, and improve their schools. Instead, we get to hear the same things over and over (and over and over) – things like “parents are more involved in a charter school so that invalidates their results because it isn’t a level playing field” or “they take the best students so of course they can do better”.

    Until we agree to look at charter schools as laboratories, and analyze their results in a responsible manner, taking into account all the variables and using scientific practices to identify where they are succeeding even when taking those variables into account (as well as the variables that would hinder them, such as their lower per pupil funding), this “discussion” will continue to be quite meaningless, in my view.

    For over 10 years we have had this experiment going on in Utah. Why not use the results to actually improve education? Seems like a terrible waste of potential good to me.

    And as for just getting involved in your local public school in order to improve it – that has not proven to be effective in meaningful reform (such as changing curriculum, schoolwide practices or in teacher selection) of public schools. It simply puts parents on a guilt trip, when they are probably following their good senses that involvement at their local public school is meaningless beyond providing emotional support to oftentimes overworked school staff who appreciate their goodwill.

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.