The limits of school choice


pic_giant_080713_SM_Why-School-Choice-is-FailingBlog readers know that I’m a big fan of school choice – a bigger fan than many of my readers, or at least so it appears from your comments.

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.

He continues:

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.



  1. howard beale

    I’ve actually had my own children in public, private and charter schools. All three have positive things and negative things.

    We got our daughter in a private school for kindergarten. She had a strong teacher and just eight children. It was a great experience. We enrolled our son and hoped for another good experience. But he was special needs and within three weeks we were asked to come into the school to check out our son. Bottom line is PRIVATE schools can accept or reject for any reason. Bottom line, they are for upper middle class and upper class white people. This is generally what these schools want. They will take you if you can pay obviously from any race or ethnicity but if your child has special needs or behavioral problems they will be asked to leave and you have little recourse. Private schools may have some great programs but they also might be lacking in other programs.

    Charter schools are hit and miss but good ones are out there. You have to be careful and do your research. I don’t know what Mary thinks but I feel strongly that charter schools are actually more variable than public schools in quality ranging from very poor to very good. They are typically littered by inexperienced teachers or teachers that many public districts don’t want. I might get some disagreement but that is the case. But some charters do have some good teachers and good programs. Our experience was generally positive but some charters in our area are very lacking. Also charters have lotteries so know matter what their proponents say, they are exclusionary. You might have one of children get accepted and one not which happened to us. This can be frustrating to be on the waiting list. You also have to wonder if the waiting list is legit and fair meaning that if your child is special ed or if your a friend of the head of the charter your chances are better or worse. These things aren’t supposed to matter but I wonder if they do.

    As for public, they have to take everyone. They have to provide services for special education. Unless the charter particularly caters to special education students, these services will be better at the neighborhood public school. Public high schools usually have way more programs than their charter counterparts and across the board better programs. Some charter schools at the secondary level will have quality niche programs and public schools are often guilty of this but rarely will you see say a Lone Peak or a Skyline not have several outstanding programs from athletics to the arts.

    Also, one has to really consider if you go private, if it is really worth the cost. Nobody can convince me that an education at Lone Peak is worse than an education at Juan Diego for most students. They both are very good schools but one is free and the other thousands of dollars per year. I think if you use student choice as we have now in Utah or just pick your residence well, you can find high quality public schools. Most private schools in Utah are better for younger students but as you get older the quality between a good public school and a good private school is minimal and again you have to weigh the costs in your choice.

    This is how I see it and again I’ve had both of my children in all three schools. Finally, giving people vouchers to go to private schools isn’t really going to get many students in private schools. Again, bottom line they exclusionary and they won’t want the “riff raff” as they they define it. They will just raise their tuition to continue their exclusionary practices. They don’t want challenging students.

    • Fiery Darts

      Thank you, Howard, for an insightful perspective on the different models of schooling.

      I’m a product of some very good public schools. I did far better in those schools than I could have in any charter school, and better than I could have done with any private school short of an array of private tutors. As far as educational value per dollar spent goes, my education was fantastic.

      I’ve followed the studies on school choice with some interest (albeit not as faithfully as Ms. McConnell, and probably not with as keen an analytic eye as she has either). But I have yet to see any evidence that school choice programs are able to make a difference beyond the fact that they allow engaged parents to self-identify. Parental engagement is one of the strongest predictors of educational success, and in every example that I’ve seen the entire benefit to school choice can be explained by parental involvement.

      The other problem that I’ve seen with school choice is that it does very little to help the other students in the failing (traditional public) schools. Sure, sometimes those schools close down and get replaced by something else (whether that something is better remains to be seen), but for the most part you just end up concentrating the students who need the most help, and who aren’t getting it from home.

      This shouldn’t be a reason to reject school choice, but it is a reason to not limit ourselves to school choice as a solution.

      One final thought about school choice: advocates of school choice assume that education is an efficient free market, so that money will follow quality and produce better results. It’s possible that at the high end of the educational spectrum this sort of evolution occurs. But for the majority of consumers education is anything but a free market. Even with an extensive array of charter school options and a generous voucher program for private schooling, public schools remain the only option for many (most?) families because they lack the resources to change schools. Tuition cost is not always, or even often, the limiting factor in school choice.

  2. Harvey

    The downside of competition is that, along with success, it creates failure and requires risk. According to the SBA, fewer than 50% of new businesses survive the first three years. Investors take risk. If they sustain a loss, no big deal, they can always make more money somewhere else. Same is not true for children. When parents search for a school, they want tried and true education outcomes, not speculation. No one wants to risk failure for their children.

    • Mary McConnell

      Actually, I think the possibility and even reality of failure is one of the best features of charter schools. Parents vote with their feet. Indeed, when public schools lose enrollment because parents exercise choice, it can sometimes force those schools to change or shut down. “Tried and true” too often means “tired and complacent.

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