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September 09, 2006

Education Markets

I'm always impressed by the faith libertarians, and some contrarian liberals, put into education markets. They speak of them in the rapturous tones of Bill Kriston contemplating slaughter, or me talking universal health care. But none of the evidence I've seen on charter school outcomes has been very convincing. My understanding is that while they've not cream-skimmed, taking only the rich and white as some Democrats feared, they've failed to improve outcomes among their students. Nor have they been found to improve the performance of surrounding public schools -- a RAND study (pdf) said there was "no measurable impact" and "no evidence that charter schools create a competitive environment." But surely the libertarians have seen these studies too, and I've spent very little time studying education policy. So please, someone, show me what I'm missing, or have to read, or where the compelling evidence lies.

September 9, 2006 in Education | Permalink


There is good evidence on vouchers in Chile and Colombia. Charter schools are a trickier issue, and some of the benefits of educational competition rely on a larger network of competing firms. That said, while I favor vouchers many libertarians overrate their positive effects. Peer effects are a big part of education, and the same group of kids can be remixed only so many ways.

Posted by: Tyler Cowen | Sep 9, 2006 10:06:43 PM

It is pretty simple why Democrats are against vouchers. The NEA.

The Dems are beholden to the unions. The teachers union is against vouchers because vouchers encourage competition. In a competition, public schools lose to private schools bigtime.

It has got to be tough for Democrats to explain to the poor (especially poor minorities) that the future of the poor's children is less important than the union's money.

I mean, a piss-poor teacher's right not to get fired is more important a poor child's chance to claw his or her way out of poverty.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Sep 9, 2006 10:38:05 PM

I think that many voucher adherents want more choice, more control in the education process. It might be that in the long run, on average charter schools does not deliver better educations, but people want to have the choice, perhaps because they think they'll be wiser pickers or have better choices in their area and thus can beat that average.

I used to be against vouchers, but I've had a change of heart. Think of it this way, if it's true that they don't have much of an impact on the quality of education one way or another and that they remove students at roughly the same rate that they remove resources from the public schools, allowing vouchers wouldn't really have much of an impact at all. As long as there is no evidence of voucher schools actually negatively impacting the parallel public system, why not let people have their choice between the two?

Posted by: battlepanda | Sep 9, 2006 10:50:41 PM

I almost forgot, voucher programs allow parents to choose religious schools, which for the most part have a higher graduation rate and a higher percentage of graduates from religious schools go on to college.

That kind of choice is unacceptable to liberals.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Sep 9, 2006 11:02:41 PM

Captain Toke, which part of "research shows school choice doesn't work" don't you understand? Talking about why the Democratic Party supports public education is irrelevant when the question is whether the proposed alternatives are any good.

Posted by: Alon Levy | Sep 9, 2006 11:25:39 PM

The numbers used to produce the vouchers arguments are not the real cost of educating our kids. When a school district says that it costs, for example, $2500/yr to educate one student, that doesn't take into account several factors.

One is the presence of buildings. School buildings are not built with money from the operating budget of a school district. If school districts regularly had $10 million in extra funds lying around, they would be forced to spend it on equipment or possibly even teachers' salaries. Buildings and major renovations are built using mill levies or bond issues that expire when the project is done.

There are actually quite a few grants, both public (meaning from other budgets than property taxes and such) and private that can pay for technology, curriculum and even teachers' salaries. These are of course not figured into the cost/student numbers.

So right off the bat our $2500, useful for some purposes, is completely wrong for figuring the cost of education. Which means that there are certain fixed costs that will continue to be there whether a particular student's $2500 stays in the district or not. However, if that student is part of a program that receives money from a grant or some such thing, that grant money will be reduced or could be lost completely.

Private schools have pretty much the same system. The tuition that one charges for a year's education does not actually reflect the amount of money that it takes to educate a child. They have existing buildings and equipment, and they also have "extra" costs that cannot be figured into the tuition rate. And private schools are usually underwritten by an endowment or a religious organization.

There is no way that providing $2500/student is going to give parents real "choice" in schools unless those parents already have the means to pretty much afford private school. The masses of poor and even most middle class families simply do not have the money to pay for private school tuition, even if part of it comes from a voucher. That means that the wealthy families, the ones who can support best the various fund drives and such that schools - public and private - rely on, will be even less represented in public schools than they are now. Regular readers of this blog know that there are many problems that find their roots in poverty. Under a voucher system, the public schools will become, even more than now, the places with the kids who have health problems, poor family situations, learning disabilities (those caused by poor nutrition), the list goes on.

There isn't space to get into the various problems with private schools that don't require teaching certification or even degrees, and those that spend much of their time inculcating a particular belief system rather than teaching the basics of a good education.

The voucher movement comes from a set of a priori assumptions that require absolutely no proof in order to be believed by its members:
-unions are always bad
-competition is good
-private companies are always more efficient than government.

For these voucher cultists, every negative story about public schools or students proves that the entire system is a failure, while every success story is proof of the power of an individual who is willing to work hard and buck a failing system.

A public school system that has repeatedly taught children and teenagers not only basic facts and figures, but how to think critically and to expand their horizons, is a fundamental basis for the success of the American experiment. We undermine it at our nation's peril.

Posted by: Stephen | Sep 9, 2006 11:54:24 PM

they've not cream-skimmed, taking only the rich and white as some Democrats feared

The way in which the cream-skimming metaphor works in this sentence -- "rich and white" -- is pretty amazing.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 10, 2006 12:10:25 AM

It might be that in the long run, on average charter schools does not deliver better educations, but people want to have the choice,

Which is for me a pretty compelling argument in their favor. To a large degree, "school choice" already exists-- it's called "moving." Families are not hesitant to move to a new neighborhood in search of better schools. However, for cities, this means that parents with the means to pick up their families and get out are going to do so if they don't like the schools. Vouchers and charter schools in such environments might not produce better students, but the feeling of having the "choice" might encourage parents to stay in their neighborhoods rather than exercising their right of "choice" by moving to the suburbs.

Posted by: Constantine | Sep 10, 2006 12:23:49 AM

What amazes me is how "school choice" supporters can talk about shopping around for the best school for one's child, as if that were as simple as trying out a variety of different dry-cleaning services to find out which one provides the best service and value. Anyone who has worked in education could tell you why. There is too much of a chance that a given school selected just doesn't work out (it turns out to not be suited to the child's needs, or the child gets bad teachers, or he/she just doesn't feel comfortable learning there), and when that happens, uprooting the student and sending him/her to a new chosen school can be even worse. In any event, the student's formative years are being wasted getting bounced around from school to school. The alternative is sticking with a bad school. So much for free choice.

Posted by: Andrew | Sep 10, 2006 12:55:43 AM

Ezra - whenever you talk in rapturous tones about universal healthcare, you always stress that it wouldn't be a government-run system, but just a system where the government pays but people get to choose their own providers. Education should be the same way. I think Democrats need to take some long hard looks at how children -- especially poor children -- are educated in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Posted by: digamma | Sep 10, 2006 1:39:55 AM

I'm with Battlepanda. A public school -- pretty much regardless of district -- has to be a universalist, jack-of-all-trades educator. School choice would allow artistic students to go to schools with a focus on the arts, scientifically-minded students to go to schools with a focus on science, business-minded students to go to schools with a pragmatic, leadership-oriented program, etc. Naturally, some universal aspects should be required (e.g., artistically oriented schools shouldn't totally neglect math). However, I think that an overall art-oriented school would probably do a better job catering to art-minded students than a school trying to satisfy every type of student.

In short, I don't think that school choice would make schools generically "better." I'm not even sure that, by measurable metrics, they would even be better for the specific students who went there. I do think, though, that students might have a happier, more engaging time in school if they went to schools focused on their interests, which is worthwhile even if it has no impact on their futures outside of highschool (remember, kids aren't just adults of the future, but people and ends in themselves whose welfare should be considered directly).

Posted by: Julian Elson | Sep 10, 2006 2:32:33 AM

In urban settings, charter schools put schools back in the hood. Kids get to walk to school...no bus. With good community/parent involement the possibility of an after school program is also a plus.

My daughter went to a small private school which turned into a charter school. Class size went from 7 to 21. The new kids all seemed to performing below grade level. The first year test scores for the charter school were poor. The test scores never improved, as each year we got more under achieving kids.

Posted by: Jerri | Sep 10, 2006 2:35:16 AM

School choice would allow artistic students to go to schools with a focus on the arts, scientifically-minded students to go to schools with a focus on science, business-minded students to go to schools with a pragmatic, leadership-oriented program, etc.

In cities, this already exists. I know that they do something like this in New York. In the suburbs, population density is too low for this arrangement to be viable; most school districts are too small to support more than one high school, and merging too many districts will make the commute length explode.

Ezra - whenever you talk in rapturous tones about universal healthcare, you always stress that it wouldn't be a government-run system, but just a system where the government pays but people get to choose their own providers. Education should be the same way.

Single-payer health care empirically works. Single-payer education doesn't. What's so hard to understand about it?

Posted by: Alon Levy | Sep 10, 2006 3:40:49 AM

The flipside of vouchers is that when students are required to go to school, those turned away by private schools must be taken by public school systems.

So in a voucher system, there should be some pro-rata sharing of voucher revenue between the school that can expel the student at will and the school that will receive that student if expelled. 1:1 (elective:universal) would certainly work to the benefit of the universal access portion of the system, beyond 4:1 I'm not sure.

Of course, the NEA prefers 0:1 and ideological voucher advocates prefer 1:0, which gives me added confidence that the best outcome for students is somewhere in between.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Sep 10, 2006 3:51:50 AM

Bruce, do you also think that because some people believe the world is flat and others believe it's round, its shape is somewhere in between, say a hemisphere?

Posted by: Alon Levy | Sep 10, 2006 4:14:13 AM

"[T]he NEA prefers 0:1 and ideological voucher advocates prefer 1:0, which gives me added confidence that the best outcome for students is somewhere in between."

Hardly convincing -- just like when the print media says that because both the Republicans are angry and the Democrats are angry, the media must be doing a good job. Mere rhetoric. Sophistry.

Posted by: RatIV | Sep 10, 2006 6:02:52 AM

Bearing in mind that the NEA want to leverage concern for education into the greatest possible job security for teachers in public school systems gives the argument for having some portion of funding follow the student weight. Bearing in mind that the ideological voucher advocates rely on pure market type reasoning, and therefore completely ignore the issue of maintaining a viable universal access education system, gives the argument against having all funding follow the student weight.

The difference between the sphere/flat and Democrat/Republican analogies ... why they are not isomorphisms ... is that in neither case are two interest groups biased against the public interest in diametrically opposed ways. The NEA is biased from the interests of the students in favour of maintaining the public school infrastructure, and the ideological school voucher supporters are biased from the interests of the students in favour of destroying the public school infrastructure. If the best interest of the students lie at one extreme or the other, then coincidentally one side or the other will be on target, but if the best interest of the students do not lie at either extreme, then both interest groups will err in opposite directions.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Sep 10, 2006 6:36:03 AM

Why not look at somewhere that actually has a proper voucher system for the evidence? Say, ooh, perhaps Sweden? The entire education system has been run as a pure voucher system, single payer (well actually local councils but still...) since 1992. Highly egalitarian society, lots of social mobility, you know, those sorts of things that tend to appeal to the American left.
Very difficult to see that, as Levy says, the empirical evidence shows that vouchers don’t work.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Sep 10, 2006 6:45:08 AM

Battlepanda and Tim,

You are making a huge error if you think supporters of a voucher system are trying to get a system like Sweden's in place (or Sweden's results). This is very similar to the social security debate. Yes, the system could be improved. But you can't have a good faith argument or policy result when your opponents want to destroy the institution NOT make it better. And when you agree with them that "Yes, Social Security is going to be in trouble when the baby-boomers retire, so let's reform the system" ... you end up hurting the causes you mean to support because you're only giving ammo to these bad faith opponents - people who could not care less about improving the institutions in question.

It's just bad politics not to take into account the true motives of voucher proponents when discussing the issue. It's Joe Lieberman-ish.

So, to answer Battlepanda "if it doesn't make a difference, what harm?" ... there is no upside if it doesn't make a difference, while there is a huge potential downside in further undermining an already weakened institution (i.e. public schools).

In any case, if we really want to apply "free market" competition to education, how about doubling teacher salaries. I am willing to go out on a limb and guarantee the quality of teaching will improve immediately.

Posted by: a-train | Sep 10, 2006 9:29:28 AM

Actually, %99.99 of the world believes the earth is round, while the luddite %0.01 still think its flat. We know the earth isn't exactly a perfect sphere so that %0.01 apparently has an effect...if you wanted to make a relatively balanced comparison...

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Sep 10, 2006 11:01:54 AM

So where do I go for a fair accounting of the structure, successes, and methods of sweden's system? As I said, I'm willing to be convinced, I just lack sufficient familiarity with this debate to know where to look for the data.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 10, 2006 11:11:24 AM

Fiat some big, federal voucher program into existence.

If there's no alternative school handy -- as is the case in vast swaths of America -- what good are vouchers? You can count the number of private schools on the fingers of one elbow in 1/4 of American counties. For millions of rural Americans, the program would be a hollow joke.

If there's an alternative school handy, but there's no alternative transportation system in place, the voucher is useless. If Mommy can't drop me off and pick me up, and there's no bus to ride, what good's my voucher? You don't hear a lot about suburban/exurban voucher programs for a reason.

There's an alternative school, and an alternative bus system in place but they're both run by Eastgate Christian Academy, and my family is atheist, or Jewish. What good is my voucher?

My family is on the low end of the SES scale in a wealthy suburb. The voucher is worth $3500, and the local alternative school, even though it exists, is non-confessional, and has transportation, is an old-line prep school where day-hops pay $17,000 p/a. and boarders $28,000. What good's my voucher?

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Sep 10, 2006 11:57:46 AM

You shouldn't assume the bad faith of voucher advocates. The analogy between vouchers and social security privatization is a disanalogy just as the analogy between healthcare and education is a disanalogy -- those are all markets with important differences.

There are a lot of folks out there who feel shafted and alienated by the one-size fits all experience of the American public highschool. They are clamoring for an alternative for their kids. They care about this so much that some of them are willing to homeschool or send their kids to private schools, all at enormous costs. Does it seem to much to ask that you assume they care more about their kid's education than wrecking the public school system on ideological grounds?

IF the charter school kids start performing much worse than their cohorts in public schools or IF there are evidence that the cream-skimming is seriously harming the students thus left behind, then it might be time to wind back the charter movement. But absent such evidence, the default position should be to give parents as much control over the education of their offsprings as possible.

Posted by: battlepanda | Sep 10, 2006 12:21:29 PM

battlepanda --

You shouldn't assume the bad faith of voucher advocates.

my friend, i think you are the one doing the assuming. of course, assuming good faith should be the default. but here more than a preponderance of the evidence points the other way. that is, the probability of bad faith far outstrips the probability of good faith.

the default position should be to give parents as much control over the education of their offsprings as possible.

i think you'd find that i agree with you about the problems in public education (btw, i'm not a teacher nor am i related to one or married to one). but it is a huge leap to believe that voucher programs give parents "control" or that they will solve these problems.

teachers love to teach in systems where parents care about their kids education. the problem is that most people just want to bitch about public schools instead of becoming involved. public schools where the parents attend board meetings and are in regular contact with teachers produce great results (no matter how you define "great results" ... i.e. $$$ or flourishing lives).

unfortunately, i really don't have the time to get into this, but the voucher stuff is mostly a sham (but one that, like so many republican positions, is designed to have superficial appeal with people who don't understand the real problems). but a couple of points:

1) sweden's education system doesn't exist inside of a vacuum (i.e. you can't compare it to america's without taking the whole social system and society into account).

2) i don't think my analogy to social security is that far off. voucher positions on public education are similar to the libertarian assumption that the quality of gov't (and gov't programs) is fixed ... i.e. gov't can't be improved so the best solution is to throw out the baby with the bath ... "starve the beast."


Posted by: a-train | Sep 10, 2006 1:49:55 PM

I'm someone whos is moderately in favor of education vouchers (for limited numbers of low income underperforming kids only) and I'm pro Charter school, and even I know better than to trust the motives of many of Voucher schools' most zealous proponents, who'm tend to be right wing, conservative religious types with extreme hostility to the public education system.

Posted by: DRR | Sep 10, 2006 1:59:35 PM

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