Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

Getting Past Generic ‘Choice’

By Rick Hess — October 13, 2008 6 min read
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The traditional district structure of a superintendent and elected school board that authorizes, funds, and operates public schools is not immune from issues of supply and demand. It has a monopoly’s view of them: The district is a sole-source general contractor or provider that supplies either directly or indirectly to schools, and through them to families and young people, what these consumers are judged to need.

It usually purchases and supplies directly a core set of academic services (teachers, administrators, instructional materials, and the like), while subcontracting for and providing indirectly support services (such as transportation, food, and janitorial services). With the growth of a variety of public-school-choice initiatives, this monopoly view of supply and demand is—grudgingly at times—giving way to a more dynamic market-oriented view.

Within this emerging perspective, much of today’s discussion of K-12 education centers on boosting the “supply” of high-quality district and charter schools. Topics in that discussion include creating new schools through public measures such as startup funds for charter schooling; incubating charter-management organizations; expanding voucher programs or lifting charter caps; and boosting the larger public-school-choice program, including the public-choice and supplemental-services provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Supply-side activities also feature the policing of quality through testing, NCLB-style accountability, and charter school authorizing. Much has been learned along the way, although we are far short of where we need to be to foster a dynamic, quality-conscious supply side.

Largely ignored, however, have been systematic endeavors that investigate the “demand side” issues posed by entrepreneurial reform—namely, the growing number of actors involved in education’s political economy who function as the consumers or purchasers of what the supply side offers. Most often, attention to demand centers on impassioned rhetoric about the value of “school choice,” a generic category called “families,” and the information “families” need to choose schools. Setting aside the enormous distinctions between types of families and their variegated needs, such a focus overlooks an array of other demand-side actors and their needs.

School districts and charter-management organizations, for example, shop for different services to purchase, rather than provide these through a central office. Principals seek cost-effective reading and remediation programs. Teachers search for rewarding environments and meaningful professional development or assessment tools. Students who drop out or lose interest are looking for a more engaging learning environment that prepares them for adult success. Policymakers and members of the civic community seek information on the effectiveness of school improvement activities. And on and on.

From the supply perspective, we often think only of “whole school” solutions to school improvement, rather than differentiating the various human-capital, organizational, pedagogical, service-delivery, operational, and technological challenges that bedevil K-12 schooling. The result is that new supply-side entrants typically are expected to solve the entire problem of K-5 or 5-8 or 9-12 schooling in order to get a seat at the school improvement table. This sets an extremely high and unrealistic bar for new, entrepreneurial problem-solvers, potential entrants, and tool-builders.

In short, today’s school choice discussions need to devote sustained attention to the demand side, to the dynamics of market segmentation, and to what niche or specialized services will assist the various actors and respond to their different demands.

In the private and social sectors, it is routine for successful for-profit and nonprofit organizations to develop increasingly sophisticated maps of what consumers want and need. In education, such refined maps are nothing but a pipe dream. The more prosaic challenge here involves mapping the sector and promoting a basic understanding of the way supply—existing as various types of support, such as staff members, money, and services—can be arranged to address a generic set of demands (from students, families, administrators, and so forth).

We are both strong proponents of chartering and school choice. One persistent problem for reform efforts, we find, is the tendency to regard school choice, or today’s charter-management organizations, as the “bleeding edge” of school reform. These efforts deserve acclaim, yet they are viewed through the lens of conventional assumptions about what schools look like, how they provide services, how they array staff, and how they make use of specialized providers.

One persistent problem for reform efforts is the tendency to regard school choice, or today's charter-management organizations, as the 'bleeding edge' of school reform."

Two assumptions in particular severely constrict the opportunity for using niche providers that might dramatically enhance the effectiveness of instruction or educational delivery. First, the assumption that all funding must necessarily go to a school building with a staff that makes limited use of external providers to instruct students, provide specialized services, or re-engineer system operations. And second, a near-absolute focus on student selection of schools and on student test scores.

We believe there is a need to understand the basic educational demand curve; the prices—monetary and otherwise—that families, schools, educators, school systems, or the policy and civic communities are willing to pay for particular services; and how these services might be unbundled—that is, how assessment, content provision, tutoring, and so on need not be provided by the same individual, or even in the same facility.

This calls for far more critical thinking on how to catalyze and support a supply of K-12 problem-solvers, as well as efforts to better understand the specific needs of the many actors in the demand-side market in which supply-side ventures operate. Demand-side discussions must be more sophisticated than simplistic conversations about generic families, students, teachers, civic leaders, and policymakers. They must be grounded in a complex segmentation of the actors or consumers of school choice’s demand side. Together, supply and demand in this sense create a rich, dynamic social market of options matched with needs.

Finally, we need to help policymakers, funders, and education leaders consider how they might confront challenges in manageable bites. Rather than “solving” all the difficulties with elementary education in a district, for example, the goal could be to provide a road map for thinking about the allocation and configuration of time, support, and resources. This approach would focus on advancing a conversation about how to solve discrete challenges, even if a given venture or tool were not a whole-school or complete solution.

Such an approach raises concerns of its own. For example, in seeking to unbundle K-12 provision, how will essential roles, or legitimate and responsible providers, be determined? What intermediary organizations are needed to assist consumers in matching the expanding number of demand-side resources to the specific needs of a family? Exploring demand offers no pat answers. But it is essential, if the opportunities presented by new technologies, tools, and ventures are to be realized.

The design challenge for school choice is to match supply with demand—to find the right fit between supply-side services and demand-side actors, to segment supply and demand so as to be clear about which consumer need is to be met with which demand-side offering. This sophisticated approach to education’s social market is sorely needed.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as Getting Past Generic ‘Choice’

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