Yes, I think that charter and voucher/private school options can and in many cases have dramatically improved educational opportunity for many of our most vulnerable kids.
Still, while choice advocates can point to some big successes – the Harlem Childrens’ Zone schools, for example – we have fewer home runs on our score board than we sometimes like to admit.
An article in today’s National Review Online, authored by American Enterprise Institute scholar and school choice advocate Michael McShane, makes this point starkly:
In the 2011 NAEP, a test given to a nationally representative sample in every state and to a select group of large districts, Milwaukee eighth-graders scored a 254 in math and 238 in reading. To put those numbers in some context, on those same tests the averages in Chicago were 270 and 253, respectively, and the large-city averages for the whole test were 274 and 255. On the NAEP, 10 points equates approximately to one year of knowledge, meaning that even compared with their peers only in other big cities, Milwaukee students are two grades below average in math and almost two grades below in reading.
For those of us who believe in school choice, these are some disappointing numbers. Does this mean that school choice is the wrong policy or that the market forces that have increased quality and lowered prices in every other sector of human society somehow don’t apply to education? I don’t think so. Rather, “school choice” has done less to create a market than many of its proponents believe.
The demand for better schools may well be strong. The supply response, however, has proved disappointing:
Injecting markets into education simply creates, as Hayek would put it, a “fair playing field” for schools to compete. In functioning markets, new providers are constantly popping up to replace enterprises that are not meeting the needs of consumers. Through that winnowing process we move from hulking black-and-white televisions that cost $269 in 1958 dollars — over $1,700 in 2012 — to flat-screen LCD HDTVs that cost $249 in 2012. We don’t see that with private-school-choice programs. Private schools are closing across the country, but they are not being replaced by better ones. That doesn’t help anyone.
Private-school choice will drive positive change only when it creates high-quality private schools within urban communities. New schools and school models need to be incubated, funding needs to follow students in a way that allows for non-traditional providers to play a role, new pathways into classrooms for private-school teachers and leaders need to be created, and high-quality school models need to be encouraged and supported while they scale up. In short, policymakers, private philanthropy, and school leaders need to get serious about what’s necessary to make the market work.
I’d like to know more. Why aren’t more high quality new schools – private and voucher – opening, or are they in fact opening, but still gearing up? What does he see as “new pathways into classrooms”? And what does “getting serious” mean in practice?
At the very least, Mr. McShane’s comments introduce a much needed cautionary note. I’ve argued before that we shouldn’t reject market incentives just because the marketplace is education. But we can’t just assume that markets are a panacea, either.