School Choice Is Back!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Check out my latest for the OCPA – school choice is back!

So vouchers are back from the dead. The question now is, are they resurrected in triumph, or are they really an undead abomination? Are vouchers, like Gandalf, “returned from death” in a new and more powerful form, ready to do battle with evil once again? Or are they like zombies, mindlessly dragging themselves up out of the grave with no will of their own and no purpose?

The smart people will say it’s the latter. Vouchers don’t work—after all, Milwaukee schools are still awful. They’re a moribund idea with nothing new to contribute. Republicans favor them because they’re mindlessly enslaved to a failed free-market ideology, just like the walking dead under the control of a wicked sorcerer.

They’re wrong on the facts. Vouchers do, in fact, work. Ten studies have examined how vouchers impact students who use them—studies using the gold-standard method of social science, random assignment that separates treatment and control groups by lottery. Nineteen studies have examined how vouchers impact public schools. This large body of high-quality evidence consistently finds that vouchers improve results. (See the forthcoming updated edition of my report for the Foundation for Educational Choice, “A Win-Win Solution.”)

However, although the smart people are wrong on the facts, they inadvertently point to a real danger.

8 Responses to School Choice Is Back!

  1. matthewladner says:

    Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey. That is what they called me…

    I am Gandalf the White!

  2. Parry says:

    Greg,

    What are your thoughts on weighted funding for vouchers? In other words, the vouchers for some students (e.g., special needs students, free and reduced lunch students) would be weighted to be larger, thus making them more attractive kids (from a financial perspective) for educational entrepreneurs to target. One of my concerns with the idea of universal vouchers is that educational entrepreneurs might be much more interested in targeting higher income families than they would be in targeting families with children who typically require more in the way of resources to successfully educate.

    Parry

  3. Greg Forster says:

    I’m not opposed in principle to the idea of weighting the funding based on how difficult the student is to educate. Of course there are a lot of questions of detail associated with the idea, but in principle there’s nothing wrong with it.

    However, I’m very opposed to the idea that there’s something wrong if entrepreneurs serve high income families. In every other sector of the economy, products and services first get better for the wealthy “first adopters” who finance innovation, and then the improvements that prove themselves in that market get picked up by broader markets and serve the rest of us. I see no reason why education can’t benefit from the same dynamic. The whole idea that anything good for rich people must necessarily be bad for poor people is part of the problem we need to overcome.

  4. Parry says:

    Greg,

    Thanks for the response. I am not opposed to entrepreneurs being interested in high income families, my only concern is that, with universal vouchers, entrepreneurs might have less incentive to serve lower income families, all things being equal. I would think that weighted funding might be one way to ensure that entrepreneurs would also see low income families as attractive customers, even if low income students historically require higher levels of educational resources.

    Parry

  5. Daniel Earley says:

    It may be helpful, Parry, to bear in mind that financial incentives are only one factor for education entrepreneurs, who generally possess quite diverse personal motives that impassion their obsessive drives to serve different markets. This is often based on unique emotional and interpersonal experiences. Within reason, it’s unlikely that weighted funding would need be radically different for any group except the most severely challenged. Otherwise, I would not worry too much about a shortage of passionate entrepreneurs eager to jump in with both feet to serve any given population of students.

  6. Parry says:

    Daniel,

    I agree with you to an extent. I think there likely would be plenty of passionate entrepreneurs ready to jump in and try to provide different educational opportunities for less advantaged kids. But here are a couple concerns.

    First, successfully educating kids from disadvantaged backgrounds typically requires more in the way of resources than successfully educating kids from advantaged backgrounds. If you don’t weight funding in some way, you make disadvantaged kids and their parents less attractive customers. At the end of the day, my guess is that an educational entrepreneur wants to be successful, and all other things being equal, it is easier to achieve educational success with kids from advantaged backgrounds (especially if you are looking at standardized test scores).

    Second, you may be able to build a successful school here and there on altruism, but you don’t build successful markets that way. We are not lacking in passion in K-12 education, but I think we are lacking in innovation and the incentives to drive innovation. In a competitive market, profits and growth are key incentives. Without weighted funding, I think that higher-income students become more attractive from a profit and growth perspective. And voucher programs aren’t going to ultimately be very successful if they just produce some better schools here and there. I think the real success would come from scale: an entrepreneur is able to build a better mousetrap, and then figures out how to scale that mousetrap up, somewhat akin to what is happing with KIPP schools. Which model is more attractive to scale: a model that gives you $8K per student to educate kids who bring with them a lot of needs; or a model that gives you $8K per student, another $4K per student that higher-income parents are happy to pony up for a $12K education, and a bunch of students who are going to pass the standardized tests?

    Markets are dispassionate. I think it is dangerous to build a market-based argument that rests in part on the assumption of passion.

    Parry

  7. Daniel Earley says:

    I think, Parry, that we probably agree, more or less, on weighting being fine in some cases. I have no problem with it if justified with cost data for educating particular sets of kids — all within reason. However, I still stand by my take on the motives of most education entrepreneurs, especially given that I personally know a good number of such folk. The financial bottom line is rarely the bottom line. Most would remain non-profits while scaling up, others would operate as for-profits and fewer still would go public. Even then, declared missions and niches still matter. Scalability doesn’t require going public, so I don’t see that as an issue either.

    Ultimately, a century after you and I begin pushing up daisys, a dynamic free market education funding system in which even the poorest are empowered with spending power — well, such an ecosystem will have evolved to serve every niche far better than a centralized system with its “ambitious” schedule of five-year-plans.

  8. Parry says:

    Thanks Daniel. I agree, I don’t think there’s much daylight between our opinions. The educational entrepreneurs I have met have also been passionate, hard-working people who are committed to providing a better-quality education to under-served kids.

    When I look at graduation rates for minorities and low-income kids, I worry. If our country moves in a direction towards providing market-based opportunities in K-12 education, I just think it is important to do everything we can to ensure that under-served kids are the beneficiaries of innovations and improvements.

    Good stuff!

    Parry

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