Thanks to reader Jon Lubar for bringing this important article by Kern Alexander of the University of Illinois about the dangers of school choice to my attention. It appeared first in the Journal of Education Finance and was reprinted by the Horace Mann League. School choice is bad for society and bad for education, Alexander argues. Those who say that parents should choose assume that parents are making informed choices. We know that many parents choose truly dreadful voucher schools and charter schools. We know that parents will stay in those schools despite the school’s failure to meet the needs of their children. The usual argument against charters and vouchers, which I often make, is that they do not “save poor kids from failing schools” because they do not have higher test scores. Alexander does not even refer to test scores. He makes a principled argument, based on economics, sociology, psychology, and logic.
Here are a few excerpts:
The story goes that tuition voucher schools and charter schools are creatures of the spirit of capitalism1 and that public funding of them will increase competition, making all schools more efficient and academically better, especially public schools. For that theory to work it is hypothesized that parents as “rational people will make choices as to the education of their children in perfect markets.” In the realm of economics, this reasoning is called the “rational expectations hypothesis” or the “efficient markets hypothesis.”
The “efficient markets” notion applied to schools via parental choice means that parents will, in their wisdom, utilize public money to send their children to private schools and that ipso facto the education level of the nation rises commensurate with the level and intensity of competition among parents in choosing private, clerical and/or corporate charter schools. For the education level to rise requires, of course, that parents will make rational decisions relative to quality education. Essential to the concept is that parents have the knowledge necessary to make informed educational choices. In a perfect market, information is presumed to “flow like water–faster than water,”3 and it is necessary that those things irrelevant to quality education, or even detrimental to it, are not present in parental decision making. If parental choice is not based on quality education and instead the school choices are rooted in race, religion, wealth, ethnicity, etc., then you will have “imperfect competition.” Imperfect competition would result in the overall decline in the quality of education…..
Thus, the basic voucher and charter school theory is that the nation will improve its standard of living by having parents use public tax money to make choices of schools based on their own information, knowledge, and perceptions of educational reality. It assumes that parents know what constitutes quality education, and that they have rational expectations as to the quality of science programs, mathematics, reading, political thought, literature, and all the liberal arts.
However, unfortunately, experience indicates that parental choices are ensnared and limited by the parents’ own limited experiences, level of learning, ignorance, biases, and mythology on which they depend to make educational choices for their children and is, thus, in most cases, highly suspect.5 Such problems with rational choices are recognized by a school of economics known as “behavioral economics” that attempts to enter into the economic equation the actual motivations of individuals in the marketplace….
Behaviorists also argue that the summation of individual choices, in totality, cannot be relied upon to ensure the progress of mankind and the enhancement of the public good. The aggregate does not necessarily produce rationality; rather, it is more likely to result in inefficiency and inequality.6 The behaviorists maintain that forces, riding the rationale of the grail of competition, tend to warp the public good causing both inefficiency and inequality. Put simply, the public good is more than the sum of individual preferences and choices. The public good is beyond the exercise of self-interests. It is a great misunderstanding, indeed, a fallacy, to assume that people acting individually in their own self-interest can achieve the public good. We have known this since it was explained to us by Rousseau in 1758, as a cornBeerstone of democratic thought, that “personal interest is always in inverse ratio” to the common interest. Thus, a system where parents take public money and indulge their self-interests is highly problematic for the education policy of a state or nation.
Similar problems of quality and consumer protection exist in education. In education, as in medicine, imperfect information decreases and distorts the “effective degree of competition.”12 With education, the conditions of the marketplace do not exist. Parents are all, to a greater or lesser degree, ill informed about the qualifications of teachers, their expertise, certifications, and are usually poorly informed about the subject matter conveyed and the teaching techniques required. That is why states require public school teachers to follow strict and complex educational processes to be certified. Such, however, is not normally required of private voucher schools or charter schools.13 Therefore, parental choice and market competition in the realm of education, as in medicine, is uniquely suspect, and in the case of tuition vouchers and charter schools, is normally reduced to a condition of state subsidized legal segregation.
Government funding of vouchers and charter schools would, if widespread, contribute to social disunity and inequality. The Wall Street desire to make significant privatization incursions into the areas of public goods, human needs, health, education and welfare, and to correspondingly avoid government regulation is a strong laissez faire profit motivation. To deregulate these normally governmental functions leaves Wall Street in the enviable position of near total discretion in raising “transaction costs” that assure profit maximization…..
[Joseph] Stiglitz quotes Alexis de Tocqueville who said that the main element of the “peculiar genius of American society” is “self-interest properly understood.” The last two words, “properly understood,” are the key, says Stiglitz. According to Stiglitz, everyone possesses self-interest in the “narrow sense.” This “narrow sense” with regard to educational choice is usually exercised for reasons other than educational quality, the chief reasons being race, religion, economic and social status, and similarity with persons with comparable information, biases and prejudices. But Stiglitz interprets Tocqueville’s “properly understood” to mean a much broader and more desirable and moral objective, that of “appreciating” and paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest. In other words, the common welfare is, in fact, “a precondition for one’s own ultimate well being.”17 Such commonality in the advancement of the public good is lost by the narrow self-interest. School tuition vouchers and charter schools are the operational models for implementation of the “narrow self-interest.” It is easy to recognize, but difficult to justify.