Exploring myth of school choice
One day in Economics 101, my professor talked about the school voucher system. He was trying to engage a lecture hall full of freshmen, so he was being intentionally provocative. He used theory but also appealed to emotions, knowing his audience had recently risen from a blend of public, parochial, and private schools.
The idea behind school choice is simple: Give parents a choice of where to send their children to school and they will pick only the good schools. The bad schools will lose students, and therefore money, and be forced to improve or close. Simple supply and demand. A banner example of the free market fixing our problems.
Except that it is based on a very obvious logical flaw, one that anyone who has ever played musical chairs can see: There are only so many educators and classrooms in the world. Let’s imagine a town with 10 schools, each with space for 100 students. If there are 950 students in town, they will all want to go to the best school. Presumably there is a process (application, lottery, high tuitions) to decide which 100 students get to go to the best, leaving 850 students to fight over the second-best school, and so on down to the bottom.
There is not a huge oversupply of great schools in America, so school choice advocates need you to believe that the free market will magically conjure into existence a massive number of high-performing schools brimming with exceptional staff and faculty. But if our imaginary town were real, 500 students would end up in the top five schools and 450 in the bottom five, with 50 of those going to the worst school in town. That is how school choice really works.
The real-world experiments on school choice usually involve giving small numbers of students in low-performing schools vouchers to attend private schools. The outcomes for those students have not been very convincing. But, even if the results proved undeniably positive, for school choice to actually improve student outcomes there have to be enough seats at high-performing schools to accommodate every student, because if everyone gets a choice, they are all going to choose the best school available.
While throwing money at a struggling school without a plan will not guarantee improvement, slashing a struggling school’s budget will absolutely make it worse, and that is exactly what school choice would do. A struggling school with a smaller budget will fall further behind, and whatever method was used to put students into that school will cost those students their shot at the American Dream.
School choice advocates understand these problems, but they continue trying to sell the idea for two main reasons. The first is that they do not want their tax dollars used to pay for other people’s education. The second reason is that while they often like to say, “We don’t coparent with the school district,” they very much want to coeducate with the school district.
Communities should have input into how our schools are governed, how our tax dollars are spent, and how our curricula are developed. Fortunately, we have a system in place for this: school board elections.
But voters have overwhelmingly rejected the school choice crowd’s positions on things like science, gender, sexuality, and race. In my district, the views of three such candidates cost their party two incumbent seats — and the majority — on the board during our last election.
Unable to prevail through elections, they have decided to abandon the democratic process altogether. They are going to the courts with spurious arguments about masks to overturn the will of the voters, and they are demanding that our tax dollars go to schools where parents will be able to place direct financial pressure on principals and teachers on matters of curriculum and culture. Their objectives have nothing to do with improving schools, this is about finding a way to give a very small minority control over a public institution that belongs to all of us.
As I have said before, Pennsylvania needs to reform how we fund and operate our public schools. But the school choice movement has nothing to do with improving low-performing schools or student outcomes. School choice advocates are trying to use magical thinking to distract us from their real objectives. This distraction will only exacerbate the real problems.