Somin: Choice Is More Democratic Than Political Control

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Critics of school choice frequently argue that schools are a “public good” that requires public control via democratic institutions (i.e., school boards and state legislatures). Proponents of choice generally respond that school board elections are too easily captured by special interests, that private schools tend to do a better job of inculcating civic knowledge and values, and that school choice better respects the high value our society places on freedom and pluralism.

In a recent blog post, law professor Ilya Somin argues that if we understand democracy more broadly as “people having a say in the decisions that affect their lives” rather than mere majoritarianism (“one person/one vote”), as some modern democratic theorists argue, then school choice is also more democratic:

Much depends on exactly what it means for people “to have a say in the decisions that affected their lives.” If it merely means having some minimal opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, then African-Americans in 1950s Topeka had enough “say” to qualify. After all, they, like whites, could vote in local elections that decided who would get to direct education policy. True, they rarely actually prevailed on issues related to segregation. But repeated defeats are a standard part of the political process, especially for unpopular minorities.

Blacks living in Topeka under segregation had the right to vote, but how much of a “say” did they really have over the public policies affecting their lives? Somin continues:

But perhaps “having a say” means more than just the right to participate, but actually requires people to have a substantial likelihood of influencing the outcome. In that sense, blacks in Topeka obviously did not enjoy true “democracy.” But their painful situation was just an extreme case of a standard feature of electoral processes. In all but the smallest and most local elections, the individual voter has only an infinitesimal chance of actually influencing the result, about 1 in 60 million in a US presidential election, for example. A small minority of citizens have influence that goes well beyond the ability to cast a vote – politicians, influential activists, pundits, powerful bureaucrats, important campaign donors, and so on. But the overwhelming majority do not.

If having a say means having substantial influence over the content of public policy, most of us almost never have a genuine say. Obviously, most voters are not as dissatisfied with the resulting policies as African-Americans in the 1950s had reason to be. But that is largely because their preferences and interests happen to line up more closely with the dominant political majority, not because they actually have more than infinitesimal influence.

Perhaps you “have a say” if enough other voters share your preferences that the government is forced to follow them. But in that event, the government is still enacting your preferred policies only because powerful political forces advocate for them, not because you have any significant influence of your own. In the same way, a person who agrees with the king’s views might be said to “have a say” in the policies of an absolute monarchy. And if, as Glickman suggests, the goal is to give “all people” a say (emphasis added), then any electoral process will necessary leave many people out. There are almost always substantial minorities who strongly oppose the status quo, but have little prospect of changing it.

In short, in a majoritarian system — even one that has significant protections for minorities — you only “have a say” when a significant number of other people agree with you (either to enact your preferred policy or at least to affect whatever policy is ultimately enacted against your will).

The powerlessness of the individual voter is one of the reasons why many libertarians favor making fewer decisions at the ballot box and more by “voting with your feet.” When making choices in the market and civil society, ordinary people generally have much greater ability to make decisive choices than at the ballot box. When you decide what products to buy, which civil society organizations to join, or where you want to live, you generally have a far greater than 1 in 60 million chance of affecting the outcome. Whether or not it is more “democratic” than ballot box voting, foot voting gives individuals greater opportunity to exercise meaningful choice.

Taking the “having a say” standard seriously also entails cutting back on the powers of government bureaucracies. The latter wield vast power over many important aspects of people’s lives, often without much constraint from either foot voting or ballot box voting.

In other words, for people to truly “have a say,” then we must shift the locus of control away from politicians and bureaucrats toward individuals and families.

If having a meaningful say is the relevant criterion, it also turns out that […] school choice […] is more “democratic” than conventional public schools. In the case of the latter, most individual parents have very limited ability to influence the content of the public education available to their children. They can only do so in the rare case where they can exercise decisive influence over education policy, or by moving to a different school district. By contrast, school choice enables them to choose from a wide range of different options, both public and private. And they can do so without having to either move or develop sufficient political clout to change government policy.

If we truly want the most disenfranchised and powerless among us to have a say over their own lives, we should favor an education system that empowers them to make choices about where and how their children are educated. It’s the democratic thing to do.

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10 Responses to Somin: Choice Is More Democratic Than Political Control

  1. Mike Norton says:

    While School Choice does truly empower parents, School Choice Arizona Style remains an abuse of Taxpayers and an unlawful gifting of public funds to the owners of Charter schools.

    Using taxpayer funds to build and own a commercial building makes zero sense. Especially when, as in Scottsdale, there are so many empty or nearly empty school campuses already available.

    There is zero public purpose for that giveaway. And the empty schools that litter Scottsdale become a blight on the neighborhoods they used to serve.

    • Ze'ev Wurman says:

      I have absolutely no idea about the situation in Scottsdale, yet I have two points to make.

      First, if charter schools are given funds by the state government, presumably giving these funds is lawful. It may be foolish, it may be immoral, but in all likelihood it is lawful. If you disagree, simply sue rather than complain on a blog.

      Second, public schools hate giving unused real estate to charters (even as they are supposed to) and they find dozens of excuses why they “can’t do that.” So please complain to the Scottsdale public schools rather than to charters that have no choice but waste money on building their own facilities.

      • Mike Norton says:

        I was not clear enough. I do hold the public schools accountable for their stubborn refusal to lease those campuses to Charters I have personally campaigned within our District for that change of policy for years. I have not stopped, nor will I.

        I have recently turned the campaign towards City Hall, asking City Council to promote the process of stopping the construction waste through the Intergovernmental Agreements that govern so many of our public school buildings.

        Every dollar spent to build another campus while public school campuses sit empty or relatively empty is a waste of public taxpayer funds that should be spent in the classroom – not enriching the owners of Charter Schools.

        Name another operation in Arizona where the public gives money to an entity to build a structure for public use but does not require that structure to remain dedicated to public use. Prisons? Not really. Unless you think we can convert prison cells to retirement condos there is nothing close to the financial misappropriation of Charter Schools.

      • Ze'ev Wurman says:

        I guess we agree, then. Your original post seemed to blame the charters for building facilities. Seems we agree they simply have no choice in the current situation.

      • Mike Norton says:

        We do agree on that point. I must add that the State Legislature has it within its power to solve the problem and has taken some halting steps to do so. Some think SB 1100 a couple of years ago was stopped by Public Schools that did not want to be forced to lease property to competitors. What they don’t know is that Charters also opposed SB 1100 because they did not want to lose their cool gig. Running a Charter is not nearly as rewarding if you just pay rent and don’t end up owning a $30M+ property in 15-20 years paid for by taxpayers.

  2. Jason Bedrick says:

    Let me get this straight, Mike. The Arizona taxpayers (myself included) are paying the charter schools less per pupil for significantly better results relative to the district schools, but you’re second-guessing how they’re using those funds?

    The public purpose for this “giveaway” is obvious: higher academic achievement at a lower cost. Heck, I’d take higher academic achievement at the same cost or flat achievement for less — getting both is even better!

    • Michael J Norton says:

      Yes. You got it right. Happy to enlighten you. Campus ownership is misappropriation of taxpayer funds and abuse of Classroom funding. I am thrilled to have convinced you

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Sarcasm aside, why exactly is this a misappropriation?

        They agree to do X in exchange for $Y. They do X better than the district school at $Y, which is less than what the districts spend per pupil. Why are we supposed to care if they do so by purchasing a commercial property instead of a municipal property?

        “But they might profit!”

        Yeah, okay, so what? If they’re profiting, it means they’re providing value. It also means that they have an incentive to scale up — exactly what we want when someone provides a superior service at a lower cost!

  3. matthewladner says:

    Mike-

    Back when the AZ School Facilities Board was spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on facilities it was going to districts. Charters outside of rented space are usually the result of philanthropy. I know one young woman who borrowed her parent’s retirement savings to refurbish a bowling alley in one of the most troubled districts in the state (but with shiny new buildings!) More power to her in my book.

    Arizona’s charters get less public funding than districts overall, so I can’t follow how the funding we provide to them is “misappropriated.” Last I heard a few years ago Tucson Unified had 10 vacant school buildings and was contemplating turning one of them into an “urban gardening center.” When we raised this issue on the Ducey transition the city of Tucson announced they were fast tracking permits to transition the facilities to non-education purposes. Seems to me that this is the real scandal- first that in the second fastest growing state in the union parents are so anxious to avoid TUSD that it shrinks year by year. Second that they are so desperate to have those facilities do anything other than the purpose for which they were built.

    • Michael J. Norton says:

      You can talk about outliers. I talk about the majors. You know how GHA BASIS function. Respond to that profile

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