Education Opinion

The Problem with “Pure” School Choice

By Sara Mead — December 12, 2011 3 min read
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I was a very naughty child. When I was inevitably caught misbehaving, I often tried to justify it by saying “So-and-so (usually my sister or a classmate) did it first!” Not surprisingly, that argument never won the day or kept me from being punished.

I was reminded of this by Jay Greene’s recent blog post about reports of malfeasance and fraud by operators participating in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for children with disabilities. Jay cites a series of examples of abuses in public school districts--basically a grown-up “he did it first!"--before stating that “existence of misconduct in traditional public schools in no way excuses the misconduct that has been uncovered in the McKay program.”

Glad we agree on that one!

The issue here is not that “some one in the McKay program did a bad thing!” Maybe it’s my Puritan streak, but I tend to think that people are prone to temptation to do bad things when they think they can benefit and get away with it. The issue, then, is when a program is systematically designed in a way that creates that temptation. We shouldn’t be surprised when a program designed with such fear and loathing of government “intrusion” that it includes no basic oversight or protection for things like whether funding recipients actually exist also presents some folks with an irresistable temptation to do wrong.

But ultimately these issues, serious as they are, are small potatoes compared to a bigger problem this story lays bare for proponents of what I’d call the “hard” or “pure” version of school choice. Proponents of this version of school choice argue that public regulation or accountability for choice schools is both harmful and unnecessary, because parent choice along functions as a magic elixir that will ensure accountability and the quality of public schools.

But here’s the thing: Parents chose these schools.

When you read about a school in the McKay program that paddled children, or one that operated in a building closed down by a fire inspector, or one that had children panhandling on street corners, remember--Parents chose these schools.

And this fact, to my mind, blows a hole in the “pure” version of parent choice.

I want to be very clear here. I don’t think the fact that some parents make poor or seemingly incomprehensible choices means that choice has no role to play in public education. Nor do I in any way, shape, or form want to be associated with the horribly condescending and borderline racist notion that poor parents are somehow incapable of making good choices.

But people need to be honest here. Education is a long way from the perfect pure market of rational consumers that we all learned about in Econ 101. When it comes to choice in education, there are issues of information asymmetries, principal-agent problems, and high transaction costs that make this something other than a perfectly competitive market. Not to mention that education, like health care, carries a deep emotional weight that leads consumers (even super-smart ones) to make decisions based on emotions as well as reason. Not to mention that parents in historically underserved communities have been given only very poor options for so long that they may not even fully grasp what a truly high-quality educational experience for their children can and should look like.

All of these factors--not to mention the fact that these are public dollars at stake--point to some role of public accountability in ensuring at least a minimum level of quality in the options available to families with public funding, as well as providing transparency about student outcomes and other key features. Some of the proposed accountability regulations for McKay providers would help here. (And would address one of my major concerns about the lack of performance accountability for schools in the McKay program--although not other issues related to potential perverse incentives.)

When we talk about educational options, there is a tendency to emphasize what a lousy job schools in many communities have done of serving low-income kids, as if that means that “anything is better.” This is also horribly condescending. On the one hand, yes, the fact that the status quo is lousy means we shouldn’t wait for alternatives to be perfect before accepting or considering them. But if anything, the fact that the current system has served so many families poorly for so long increases our obligation to ensure the quality of new alternatives put forward for them.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.