Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why School Choice May Not Be A Choice For All

While health care and unemployment are the important issues on everyone's mind these days, education is something that also deserves some attention. School choice is a hotly debated topic in the education policy arena. Proponents argue that allowing for more school choice will increase schools' productivity through more competition, and will make people better off as they will be matched to the schools they like the most (rather than be constrained by arbitrary district borders). Opponents fear that school choice will result in sorting of people based on characteristics such as income.

Caroline Hoxby, a respected expert in economics of education, wrote a widely cited paper in 2000, showing that more school choice among public schools in metropolitan areas increases student test scores and decreases per-pupil spending, implying that school productivity does indeed go up. Her study is innovative and rigorous in its methods, and this finding is quite remarkable. It seems like it should encourage people to cast a vote in support of school choice. Yet, I wouldn't be so quick to do that. In particular, I would first need to see exactly who benefits from school choice -- and not just based on looking at people above and below arbitrary income cut-offs (she considers 70% of the mean income as her cut-off for low-income).

The idea of school choice relies on the assumption that households (parents or caregivers) are informed and capable decision-makers who care and have the time to choose the best schools for their children. And while more competition may indeed improve the average quality of schools, since schools are constrained by space and resources, it is not clear that the disparity between the worst and best schools will decrease as well. Because the highest quality schools do not have the space or resources to take all students who want to go there, there will still be a market for the lower quality schools. And, I am afraid that the students who will end up in these lower quality schools are the ones whose parents are not the informed and capable decision-makers we envision them to be.

Children of teen parents, children of drug addicts, children who are abused, foster children, children of immigrants who haven't had the chance to figure out the American school system (or don't know the language and don't have the networks to do so), children of single mothers who work 3 jobs to make ends meet (and don't have the time or energy to figure out what school is best) -- these are the kids who've already got the odds stacked against them. And -- as I fundamentally believe that the educational system should serve to equalize opportunities for all children -- I am afraid that school choice will not help those kids who so desperately need the help.

Perhaps more than income and socio-economic status, it is parental support, encouragement, and belief in the power of education that drives kids to succeed academically. I know this from my own life; I know this from studies that show how much parental characteristics matter; I know this from books like "Intelligence and How to Get It" by Richard Nisbett. And if policy makers really do have the intent of improving educational incomes for the kids whom the educational system has thus far failed (which I believe most do), then I think that expanding school choice is not the right way to go, unless we do something to ensure that the kids who don't have parents pushing and fighting for them to get into the best schools don't lose out.

While I believe that school choice is not the right way to go, I unfortunately do not know what is. I just really believe that we as a society have an obligation to provide opportunities and support for the kids who do not already have them, and it seems like letting the educational market work on its own will disproportionately hurt them.

Image via firstfriday.wordpress.com


  1. Interesting article, but I'm still not sold on high-school free-agency. From my personal experience, I am almost positive that I would have not benefited from such a policy. As a child of immigrant parents who couldn't speak the language well, and had no clue of the workings of the public school system in America, I'm pretty sure that my disadvantages would have landed me in a below-average school system, while some of my better-informed classmates, raised by parents who both had at least one college degree (as was the norm in my high-school), would have entered into a really positive learning environment. Fortunately, my parents were able to use the only advantage they had (working hard, not going on vacation for a few years, two jobs, etc.) to afford the nice house in the nice school district, so that I could have the same opportunity as my better-informed classmates to get into a decent college. Why should parents like mine lose the ability, or opportunity to send their kids to a better school district through hard work? Personally, I feel this policy would benefit the better-informed (rich) kids more than the average student, at least in suburban school districts.

  2. 1. How would school choice make things worse? Is the potential for greater inequality (some improve more than others) a reason to keep everyone in a system where only those rich enough to pay both property taxes and private tuition get to opt out?

    2. People who think public schools stink are more likely to favor vouchers. Urban blacks are more likely to want school vouchers. http://www.ippsr.msu.edu/publications/bp9836.pdf Why deny these motivated parents and kids improvements?

    3. What's the viable path to reform absent school choice? Voice without exit does not do well. Exit makes vocalized complaints a lot more important.

  3. In response to Anonymous's valid questions:

    1. I believe that the potential for greater inequality is in fact a huge cost. I'm not saying that the current system (with private schools and all) is working well, but I do think that the potential for greater inequality is a reason to NOT switch to more school choice.

    2. We shouldn't deny improvements to motivated parents and kids. Why don't we improve the quality of schools that their kids attend? Hire more and better-qualified teachers; build desks; ensure that kids achieve at their grade-level by providing tutoring and support; have more AP classes; have more college counseling... The list goes on. Of course, this requires a lot more resources and work to do, but I think our country can afford it. The fact that a large proportion of poor urban schools lack the most basic amenities (books, desks, windows, etc.) is entirely unacceptable, and by allowing the motivated kids to go into better schools, we're not doing anything about the schools or the kids left behind.

    3. Here's another thing - implicit in the idea of school choice is that schools where students and parents have homogeneous preferences are somehow better. I think that one of the most important aspects of education is being exposed to a diverse spectrum of preferences, tastes, and characteristics in people. I'm afraid that school choice can lead to more segregation along various lines, and that is not good for the future of our society.

    Like I said, I wish I had a great idea for education reform. At the least, I think we need to raise the standard of what is acceptable in terms of school resources and student achievement. And, of course, we need to spend more of our resources on education (than for instance, on the defense budget or on tax breaks). I am aware of the literature that says that more inputs into education does not necessarily improve student outcomes. However, I think that well-targeted resources and policies that have been substantially researched could still be successful.

  4. i'm for choice.

    i too grew up with immigrant parents, but i don't think school choice would have held me back. My parent's spoke to other parents (in spanish) you find out fast what is good and bad.

    The point JASSG was trying to make i guess, that parents who care and follow their child's education will have the advantage. As it stands now however, a parent who cares, knows the local school is bad, can't do anything about it! They do not have a choice and have to send their kid to the local failing public school, which could be really really crappy.

    High school admissions in NYC is already based on an application- if you CHOOSE not to apply to other schools (or were denied admission) you are secured a seat in your local one. And yet many people still send their kid to the local one even if it's crappy because they don't care. The sad truth is if these parents don't care enough about education, those children are already lost- no amount of money is going to shake that home-grown feeling that education doesn't matter.

    There may be some people who don't know how to apply for schools, or don't understand the forms- sadly their kids will be mixed into bad schools, but if their parents instill in them a strong sense that eduction is the only path to success, they can succeed despite the poor school conditions (ala Sonya Sotomayor).


Commenting is now open, but we'd love it if you chose one username so other commenters can get to know you. To do this, select "Name/URL" in the "Comment as" drop down. Put the name you'd like others to see; the URL is optional.

Any profanity, bigotry, or synonyms for "[ ] sucks!" will be deleted. We welcome criticism as long as you're making a point!