Why Should We Let People Vote?

Normally I’m a big fan of Dan Willingham’s ideas but he does have some blind spots.  In particular, Dan seems to miss the point on school choice.  His argument is that for school choice to work, parents have to be rational in making choices:

The logic of school choice seems obvious. If parents selected their children’s schools, they would not choose bad ones, so bad schools would not be able to survive. Schools would have to improve or close, just as a store that offers poor service will lose business to a store that offers better service.

Here’s my problem with that logic: I think it’s highly likely that many parents will choose bad schools.

People often make irrational decisions.

Dan is mistaken in that choice does not require perfect rationality on the part of parents.  All that it required is that parents, on average, will do better at picking schools for their children than the bureaucrats who design schools and compell children to attend those schools.

We all understand that human beings are imperfect and often make mistakes.  Even all of the research on systematic irrationality produces results that are familiar to most people.  The point is that the distant bureaucrat who assigns students to schools controlled by the bureaucrat also suffers from all of these same human foibles. 

Nor can we simply assume that the distant bureaucrat will be focused on academic quality more than parents are.  The distant bureaucrat, even more than parents, has interests that distract from the focus on academic quality.  For example, the bureaucrat might be more concerned about protecting the jobs and incomes of the adults working in schools because those people influence the bureaucrat’s own job status and income.  Just consider whether superintendents are free to do whatever works for kids regardless of the effect on adults working in the schools.

Some might counter that at least the bureaucrats are highly-trained and have access to a lot of information, while parents lack the expertise and information necessary to assess academic quality.  If we really believed this made the bureaucrats superior at making educational choices, we should ask ourselves:  why do we let people vote?

Rather than have individuals make choices about their leaders and policies, shouldn’t we let highly trained experts with superior access to information select our leaders for us?  Regular people may be prone to systematic irrationality when they vote.  In fact, there is a lot of research to support such a conclusion.  For example, people are more likely to vote for more attractive candidates.  Why should people be allowed to vote when: “it’s highly likely that many [voters] will choose bad [candidates]? ”

Of course, the reason why we have democracy despite our awareness of human irrationality is the same reason why we should have schools choice:  on average, people are better at making decisions that affect their own interests than are others.  Even poorly-educated people lacking information are likely to have more knowledge of their interests and how to pursue them than are others making decisions on their behalf.

14 Responses to Why Should We Let People Vote?

  1. Parry says:


    I appreciate the “wisdom of crowds” point that you make about democratic systems, but I’m not sure I understand part of your premise.

    You said: “The point is that the distant bureaucrat who assigns students to schools controlled by the bureaucrat also suffers from all of these same human foibles.” Who specifically are you referring to when you say “the distant bureaucrat”? My understanding is that local school boards are typically responsible for student assignment, a task that is often carried out in a nuts-and-bolts way by central office folk in the district. So who is the distant bureaucrat?

    Or are you making a larger point, that state legislatures decide whether or not students have statewide choice options, such as vouchers or charters, and that bureaucrats within state departments of education have a hand in this process?

    I guess I’m not understanding your “distant bureaucrat” reference.


    • Greg Forster says:

      School districts are distant bureaucrats – distant in every way that could possibly matter.

      Kids are assigned to schools based on ZIP codes, for crying out loud. What does the school board know about my daughter and what she needs, and what methods or environments or teacher characteristics would help meet those needs?

  2. […] Jay Greene wanders into the fray at his blog and in the comments […]

  3. allen says:

    Looks like Dan’s trying to rationalize the case for what’s at heart a political deal.

    The assumption that’s been offered, and been accepted for a long time, is that if the experts get enough in the way of resources and authority then the only possible outcome is a good one. But the genesis of the public education system isn’t based on that sort of rosy rationality. The public education system was the product of bare-knuckled politics in which a number of disparate constituencies found advantage. Anti-Catholic bigots forced rich Catholics to pay for the education of other people’s kids, trade unionists got rid of all that competitive child labor and the industrialists got legions of new workers who were sufficiently educated to be useful and, as important, used to regimentation and order-taking.

    Of course that sort of self-interest doesn’t play well in Peoria so the education experts, very similar to experts in other areas because they did research, published impenetrable papers and had advanced degrees, were dusted off and presented to the public as the reason why all those cute little mommies and daddies, so quaintly concerned with their children, had no reason to worry.

    Worked for quite a while too but the experts seem to have exhausted public patience so, sorry Dan but mommies and daddies, rational or not, are taking charge.

    The problem is, for many of those mommies and daddies, the sneaking suspicion exists that their life would’ve been significantly better if not for the public education system so when they find their heads being patted by the same, patronizing experts who let them down and want to dictate to them about what’s good for their kids, rational or not, those mommies and daddies aren’t interested.

  4. educ8m says:

    Fine, so what if a parent chooses a bad school. The school might not be bad, it just might not be the right school for their child. Or if it is, they could choose another one, if they have the chance. Better that, than not being able to choose at all and getting stuck with the bad government local school.

    On occasion, one might choose a bad restaurant. You don’t go back. We are supposed to be free to make bad choices sometimes. We learn from the mistake.

  5. Attorney DC says:

    Interesting topic. As a former teacher, I tend to think that schools are good or bad in large part based on the students/families who attend that school. Given the same teachers, principal, building and school supplies, filling a school with upper middle class kids with involved parents will create a “good” school, while filling that same school with low income and minority kids with uneducated parents will probably create a “bad” school with low test scores, safety issues, and discipline problems.

    Based on this premise, I believe that school choice has pros and cons. It allows those kids who are motivated and want to apply themselves to attend school with other students like themselves. However, the students who are left behind in the public schools will continue to struggle. Contrary to the assertion of this post, I haven’t seen any data that shows that school choice raises the academic achievement of the kids who are “left behind.”

  6. Attorney DC —

    Here is evidence on how expanding school choice afftects the achievement of kids who are “left behind”: https://jaypgreene.com/2009/04/27/systemic-effects-of-vouchers-updated-42709/

    Also, I disagree (and considerable evidence contradicts) your suggestion that school quality is simply a function of the student and family composition of that school. We know that different schools with different approaches and different staff are able to produce significantly different outcomes for the same type of students. If you really believed that schools themselves couldn’t make any difference, we should drastically cut school funding since the schools and what they do makes no difference. I don’t think you really believe that.

  7. Attorney DC says:

    Jay & Greg: Thanks for the links. I’ll check them out.

    My premise was not that different schools or teachers cannot create different results with the same students. My premise is that students’ own characteristics influence the quality of the school, independent of the school’s staff, materials, and curriculum.

    My beliefs arise in part from my years teaching in a large school district in California. I taught, tutored, and substituted in numerous middle and high schools throughout the district. The schools all had the same or similar funding, textbooks, buildings, and student-teacher ratios. Yet the school quality varied widely depending on the characteristics of the students attending each school.

    My point: I think many people believe that schools are good or bad independent of their students. They blame teachers or principals or funding for students’ problems, neglecting to look at the students’ own effort, motivation, family attributes, culture, etc. In my experience, the MAJOR factor impacting school quality is the students themselves. Of course, once you have X group of students, things like curriculum and structure can be changed to positively or negatively impact these students’ learning.

  8. allen says:

    Of course schools, teacher, principals are good or bad independent of their students. Why should education professional be different in that regard then any other professional?

    Besides, the argument that education quality is a function of student quality is transparently self-serving. If the quality of the student body is determinative then the professionals are, by definition, not accountable for results. Nice work if you can get and for way to many teachers, they can since professional accountability’s a relatively recent phenomenon which still isn’t anywhere near fully-established.

    But let’s not drift too far from the topic.

    Dan’s working pretty hard to make a case for lousy decision-making by parents as the rule not the exception. But from a parental standpoint it’s really not that tough a problem.

    All a mommy or daddy need to know is where their kids stands, educationally, in relation to other kids that are comparable. To make that determination they need accessible, timely, credible information that’s good enough.

  9. Parry says:


    You said: “All a mommy or daddy need to know is where their kids stands, educationally, in relation to other kids that are comparable. To make that determination they need accessible, timely, credible information that’s good enough.”

    That is one of the key points that I struggle with when it comes to the topic of school choice. I have found that most parents do not have access to that kind of information.

    educ8m made the comparison to restaurants: if you don’t like a restaurant, you don’t go back. But figuring out whether or not you like a restaurant is a pretty quick and efficient process with immediate data and feedback. Taste, decor, price, service: it only takes an hour or two to figure all of those things out. In other words, just about anybody eating at a restaurant gets accessible, timely, and credible information.

    But what types of accessible, timely, and credible information are currently available to parents about the quality of their children’s education, and how that quality compares to the education of other children?


    • allen says:

      I agree that the sort of information that ought to be available to directly determine educational efficacy is lacking – a situation which it would be well for those interested in promoting charters ought to try to remedy – but lacking accurate measurement instruments the desire to get your kid a good education doesn’t go away. So, you make do and find proxies for those accurate measures of educational efficacy.

      Does the school make an effort to keep you informed? Are questioned answered in a timely fashion with due regard to the importance of the situation, i.e. it’s your kid that’s under discussion. Are you, as a parent, made to feel welcome and made to feel that your concerns are important?

      There are other proxies I’m sure which, while not necessarily as accurate and objective as a well-constructed testing regimen, would tend to indicate that your child isn’t seen as nothing more then a money-teat on the government cow.

  10. Parry says:

    I have my reservations about “school choice” as a viable large-scale innovation to improve K-12 education, and I am sympathetic to many of Dan Willingham’s points, but I think allen has hit the nail on the head. Accessible, timely, credible, and comparable information about students’ educational quality is key. When educational quality becomes transparent in a way that parents can easily access and understand, parents become much more “rational” consumers in a way that might change the current landscape.


  11. […] You’re welcome to go ahead and read Mr. Willingham’s entire entry. But I think Jay Greene has done the best job of providing a rational objection: […]

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