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