Understanding Markets

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Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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61 Responses

  1. Avatar Freddie says:

    The part of Chris’ critique that most confuses me is the idea that free market economics is a means of controlling people, when the principles underlying them are precisely that people ought not be controlled.

    But they do control people, of course, and this is why one feeling that I associate with certain strains of libertarianism more than any other is that of naivete. A system is coercive if the alternative to working within the system is destitution to the point that it challenges fundamental standards of human survival. And in a really free market, if you don’t work for the boss, you really can starve to death, you really can freeze to death. If your options are to get a job that you really don’t want to do or to die, that’s little choice at all.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Freddie says:

      Well, but a truly free market is, as I say, anarchy; it is the absence of any kind of “system” at all. Of course, most of us find certain features of anarchy to be utterly flawed and unacceptable, and so we effectively agree to create systems (ie government programs of various sorts) to overcome these problems.

      I agree with you that many strains of libertarianism suffer from the kind of naivete you describe – in fact, the original draft of this post had a paragraph to that effect, although I was actually less charitable than declaring such views “naive.”

      But a truly free market, since it is anarchy, is definitionally the absence of control. The problem is that very few libertarians – myself included – actually believe in a truly free market.

      What I am trying to argue here, though, is for a set of principles and/or rules that describe when and to what extent the use of coercion is justifiable and/or legitimate.

      For me, the goal is not to eliminate coercion, which is an unachievable goal unless you are an anarchist. Instead, the goal for me is twofold: 1. to recognize that there are an infinite number of conceptions of “the good” and that all should have a right and ability to pursue, to the extent possible, those conceptions; and 2. To recognize that where there is widespread agreement on “the good,” it may be necessary and appropriate to use coercion to achieve that good. The first goal, by itself, would be compatible with anarchism; but the second goal is what justifies the existence of government and government intervention. And the fact is that there is widespread agreement (unfortunately much to the chagrin of some libertarians and to some conservatives) that strong social safety nets are worthy “goods,” as is a thriving system of education to which all have access regardless of income. Increasingly, there is also widespread agreement that health care for all regardless of income is a worthy “good.”

      I accept these agreements as a given; what I don’t think is at all agreed upon is the idea that a “good” education consists of x hours of math instruction taught a certain way, y hours of reading instruction taught a certain way, z hours of science instruction taught a certain way, etc. Nor is there anyway to prove scientifically which combination is “best’ – because there’s no agreement or even discussion on what outcome would be “best.” I thus think it is important that parents have the ability, regardless of income, to decide what combination is “best” for their children.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    You covered a lot of ground in this post. In terms of the economics section, I always puzzled by the idea of “laws” of econ. At best there are various concepts based on theories. Laws are for physics and math. Economics is to based in political ideas to have true laws. I can’t count how many times i have heard people say the Big O’s stimulus doesn’t make any theoretical sense and isn’t based on econ 101. Well you can disagree with the stimulus but Keynesian economics is in the text book and an accepted, if not always agreed with theory.

    People do have a way of having input how schools teach their children. Drum role please…. schools boards….ta da. Okay school boards are drab and unfun but, to the loss of us all, Texan creationists have found a way to use them.

    But keeping with the econ ideas relating to schools. If I am the principle of a large poorly functioning school and a bunch of kids leave my school to go to other schools through vouchers, the message is far from clear. Did the kids leave my school because of poor teaching or because the text books were 15 years old and i don’t have the money to buy more. Did they leave because of gang violence , which as an externality is out of my control or because of a lack of upper level elective classes? Did they leave because schools in poor districts have a chaotic, transient student population or because the teachers are burnt out? Messages are not always clear nor is information always complete.

    But to go off on somewhat of a tangent, i am not completely against some kind of vouchers as long as they don’t go to paying for religious education. But as you point out, the cost of entering the “education market” is high, so there are few alternatives. So vouchers at most will help at the margins but don’t offer enough choice to a massive affect on schools. However implementing vouchers on a massive scale will likely be ineffective due to scaling problems, funding problems and because voucher programs haven’t been found to have a large positive affect.Report

    • 1. A nitpick. To my knowledge, those who used that basis for opposing the stimulus usually argued that it didn’t make sense even if you accepted Keynesian economics because of how it was structured.
      2. When I refer to “laws of economics,” I’m talking about the principles of economics that are universally agreed upon, which are essentially obvious statements that are definitionally true, e.g. – while it may or may not be possible to change supply and demand in a given instance, you will never be able to make the two unrelated. I’m not talking about things that economists almost universally agree upon, like whether “free trade is desirable,” that are inherently normative statements.
      3. While school boards may provide some outlet for parents to influence the curriculum, this outlet is a pretty limited one that simply permits 50% plus one in a district to dictate to the others in the district what their children will learn, not to mention the fact that these decisions are increasingly dictated on the national and state level, providing even less input for the individual parent. But even failing that, the result you get isn’t going to be many parents’ ideal – it’s going to be a Frankenstein’s monster of political compromises based on the pet issues of individual board members.

      4. As for the feedback issue, I don’t see how the hypothetical school hemoragging students to other schools is any different from any other business, large or small, that suddenly starts losing customers. True, we’re not dealing with perfect information – we never are – but at least in the hypothetical we’re dealing with some kind of feedback about the community’s needs beyond the relatively little feedback that currently exists and where the only “accountability” takes the form of standardized tests that may or may not reflect the community’s preferences.

      5. Re: scalability, I would tend to favor vouchers or tax credits on a more local level to start. I am skeptical of the idea of a federally-implemented voucher program. Also, I am very supportive of a pretty wide-range of intermediate compromises, which I view as imperfect but as huge steps in the right direction; these compromises (like individualized student funding that “follows the student” to the parent’s preferred school within the district, combined with a high degree of principal-level autonomy over curricula, and a de-emphasis on standardized testing) mostly only work in densely-populated environments, though.

      One final point re: religious schools receiving vouchers. I tend towards being a “high-waller,” but I tend to think vouchers are different because we’re not talking about direct funding of religious schools, but instead funding that flows to the parent, who then chooses where to spend it. Obviously there’s the comparison with Pell Grants, but another comparison might be the idea of Medicare funding going to religious hospitals. Still, vouchers reduce the cost of entry into the market such that it would become viable for more secular entities to enter.

      One other thing – if vouchers could be used at religious schools, this would take hyper-religious parents out of the public school system, thereby eliminating their influence on the public schools.Report

    • Avatar Nance Confer in reply to greginak says:

      If you, the principal, need the children to leave to tell you these are problems, you need to work elsewhere. But the leaving could give you leverage if you wanted to stay and fight the school board. Which has likely ignored the parents.

      NanceReport

  3. Avatar Katherine says:

    As I understand it, vouchers are basically government coupons for private education. I went to a private school and think Mark has a point about tradeoffs: my school had better teachers than the public system, but on the downside had far fewer electives especially at the high school level; I consider that a fairly good tradeoff.

    The disadvantages to a voucher system that I can think of off the top of my head:
    1. If everyone gets vouchers, that’s giving already wealthy people money they don’t need; and if those people would have used the private schools anyway that’s simply subsidizing the schools.
    2. Money that goes into vouchers doesn’t go into the public school system. Thus, the public school system gets worse. As private schools aren’t likely to be close to low-income neighbourhoods, low-income kids continue to go to deteriorating public schools, and there is far less political incentive to fix public schools as fewer people are using them. (This is roughly the argument in Canada against two-tier health care, especially the last point.)

    The way things work here in BC is that the government gives private schools that have certified teachers, abide by the curriculum, etc. 50% of the money per student that public schools get. Amazingly, this doesn’t seem to have attracted much controversy even though most of these private schools are Christian ones and BC – at least the west coast of BC – is one of the most secular places you’ll find. In the US, which is far more religious, I expect such a policy would cause a lot more fuss.Report

    • Katherine: Thanks for the insight. One thing worth pointing out is that we can probably safely assume that any voucher program in the US is (and probably should be) heavily means-tested.
      Re: point 2 – Under most proposed voucher systems, the result of a student using a voucher is, yes, that some money goes out of the school, but that amount is less than the amount the school would have spent on the pupil otherwise, meaning that the student’s departure results in an increase in per-pupil spending. From your description, this is pretty similar to what you have in BC.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        The student’s leaving would cost the particular school whatever the marginal change is when enrollment changes. That would then go back into the district’s treasury. That is a good point, though, it seems there could be some savings to be had there. In the long term, however, declining enrollment is not good news for school districts’ funding prospects, even on a per-student basis.Report

        • Avatar Freddie in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Sigh.

          The “fact” that private schools save money per student is an artifact of the reality that they don’t educate the tougher students. Students who represent difficult cases either couldn’t get in in the first place or are shipped out when they reveal themselves to be a problem. It’s just like the fact that it’s easy to be a superior teacher when you have no hard cases, but all well adjusted, reasonably well behaved students in your class.

          The most glaring example of this is special education, which is massively expensive, and which most private schools don’t provide at all. But kids who need criminal interventions, extensive school-provided counseling, time-intensive behavior plans, security monitoring…. It’s very expensive stuff, it’s stuff private schools don’t need to provide, and it skews the question about affordability.Report

          • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Freddie says:

            Freddie: I think you’re misunderstanding the point Katherine and I were making here. Most voucher programs provide only a partial reimbursement, with the parents being required to make up the difference. This is what we were referring to.

            But that said, I don’t think this is quite right: “The “fact” that private schools save money per student is an artifact of the reality that they don’t educate the tougher students. Students who represent difficult cases either couldn’t get in in the first place or are shipped out when they reveal themselves to be a problem.” This is likely true with your richy-rich private schools, but it is not true of the private schools with relatively affordable tuitions (usually Catholic) – often these schools wind up being havens for kids who were expelled from the public schools, not to mention the fact that parents will often send children with disciplinary problems to private schools because public schools cannot provide the kind of discipline the parent thinks is required (nor should they, I might add). In my case, the private Catholic school two blocks from my public high school was often regarded as having as many or more “problem kids” than my school.

            In re: special education. I assume you’re correct that most private schools don’t offer it. But:

            1. There are already a fair number of special needs-only private schools. In fact, these schools already often act as supplements to the public school system, which in many cases is unable to handle special needs students, resulting in a situation where school systems with inadequate special ed programs already have to reimburse parents for the cost of private special ed school.

            2. If the students leaving a school with a voucher are not taking the full amount of their funding to private school, leaving the remaining amount in the public school system, this leaves the public school with more money to spend per-pupil – including per special ed pupil. Additionally, to the extent this is inadequate, one solution is to tie funding to individual students (which, IIRC, is precisely what NYC is now doing) rather than treating it as equally divided amongst all students.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Freddie says:

            Freddie, I’m with you on this, I regret if you thought I was fully endorsing Mark’s point. Public education is under all manner of mandated responsibilities which by and large are massively expensive. The more even average kids they lose, the greater is their relative burden of the high-cost children. And as kids leave a district, that money is permanently lost. It’s only in a given year that some savings could be realized, and even that is conjecture.Report

            • This is simply not true under any voucher proposal of which I am aware. Every voucher proposal of which I am aware reimburses the student for only a percentage of the funds that would otherwise be spent on her in the public school; the left over funds stay with the public school system. The result is that for every child that leaves the public school system, the amount of funding per-pupil remaining in that school increases. This is simple math!

              An illustration: PS 1 has 10 students, with a budget of $10,000, or $1,000 per pupil. One student uses a $500 voucher to enable him to leave PS1 for St. Anthony’s around the corner. The school’s budget has decreased to $9500, but it now has only 9 students to educate, meaning that it now has an extra $56 per pupil to spend.Report

              • So logically then, if all 10 students left the district, the district would have $5000 left to just do what it wanted with, right?

                Or would, in real life, that money simply all disappear student by student when they didn’t come back?Report

              • Of course, in real life, it’s difficult to envision a situation where a school remained so bad as to lose all of its students. If, hypothetically, that happened, though, then the result would be that the district would cease to exist and the money would (ideally) be returned to the taxpayers (more likely it would go to pay off debt, though). This would not be a problem – it would mean that every single parent in the district is significantly happier with the caliber of their child’s education than they previously were.

                As for your second question, I’m not at all sure what you’re getting at. If what you’re concerned about is the money disappearing from the budget after a time, that would suggest that the extra money per pupil doesn’t do any good such that the less money overall is completely irrelevant.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                “the left over funds stay with the public school system”

                For the remainder of that one year, and I don’t think we even know that to be the case. The following year certainly, the overall allocation of funding to public education in the district would be decreased by the amount related to the loss of that one child. Certainly we can stipulate that municipalities calculate the funding needed for public education at least in part by something like the ‘total educational job,” which would be measured in numbers of young minds to mold, can’t we? You don’t keep your total education funding level at a fixed hard dollar amount, or make adjustments merely for changes in political commitment or economic circumstances, do you, regardless of what is happening demographically, do you? If year over year, significant numbers of kids migrate out of public education due to public incentives to do so, then funding from the broader community decreases at the rate per kid per year it costs the public system to educate them, as the total educational job/burden placed on the community decreases.

                From the standpoint of the community there is certainly an economic case to be made for that picture, I’ll grant that.Report

  4. Interesting post. I’ve found the whole give and take on the subject of education to be an interesting one. Approaching your specific post, I think I’d take a two-step approach in thinking about what’s been said.

    First.
    I think your definition of “free market” is wildly expansive to the point of being incoherent. That is a state of nature of anarchy with only geographical limitations, there would be no market. Under such a non-coercive system there’s simply no such thing as a “market” and therefore whether or not it’s free is immaterial. I think if you’re going to argue about the purpose of a “free market” one needs to recognize that the very imposition of a “market” implies coercion into making people recognize exchange and barter as the medium of acquisition rather than force. This in turn already sets in motion certain types control mechanisms for how people ought to behave. Rational choice/homo economics is not simply a necessary component of the market, it’s an outcome/mindset that needs to be constructed for people to function within that structure. In that regard, I think it’s correct to say that the free market is specifically a control mechanism. Note that this doesn’t imply a value judgment. In fact an economic system which imposes that people must act like rational actors and behave according to the rules of barter and exchange for acquisition is a GOOD thing on the whole. But to imply that it’s somehow an absence of a system is I think a bit off. On the whole it’s also notable that this would serve to create more of a corporatist structure, absent some form of intervention to keep the market “free”.

    Second.
    Insofar as that system of control exists, the natural inclination absent coercion and intervention is to structure things to make it more “efficient”. Public goods are on the whole segments of society that we cordon off from this system of control and impose a different set of guidelines to in the name of whatever value system we’re operating under. We recognize for example that infrastructure needs of people is fundamentally more important than the efficiency of maintaining it. Therefore we build roads into little traveled areas even though if we were to place those roads under the predominant market system, it wouldn’t happen. Same with police work or fire departments or any other public good.

    Now maybe I’m showing a bit of my liberal artsy side here, but I think education is also an area where efficient outcomes aren’t necessarily the most attractive ones. Arguably what you would wind up creating with a public-private hybrid of public funding and private operated schools is one that stresses numerical achievements to the detriment of individualized teaching. That is, something like the Japanese system where schools are judged not so much by the quality of their overall education, or how their least “capable” students do, but rather on a descending basis based upon how much of their class is admitted into top flight universities.

    In fact, one could argue that a market oriented education system would come to this sort of end result. Because every parent would want to try to encourage their children to get the “best” education possible (and by nature, getting into top universities while not as important in the US, is still an important prerequisite to success if you’re going into the post-secondary level) then there’s a strong incentive for schools to inflate the parameters in which these things are judged. Commodifying children and simply focusing the school’s resources on the top 30-40% of a graduating class to get skewed results could very well be the outcome of such a market. Speaking from personal experience, such an outcome would be the least desirable of potential outcomes.Report

    • Nob: Much to chew on in this comment, and your first point is especially challenging…I’ll have to mull it over.

      As for your second point, I guess I would say that there’s already an over-emphasis on numerical achievement, which I think is in part a result of the nature of our school system as it exists. Had I written about 3000 more words, I probably would have gone into that in a lot more detail, but essentially education is an area where the demand for accountability from government is abnormally high, probably because almost everyone is directly affected by it for a lengthy period of their lives. But unlike other benefits (Medicare, Medicaid, SS, etc.), there’s no clear measure of “good” or “working.” In other words, when someone gets screwed by Medicare, Medicaid, SS, etc., they’re able to call their Congressman or a government office and indisputably demonstrate that they got screwed; agencies don’t like getting such calls, and they like less getting yelled at by Congressional staffers, so they have a strong incentive to meet beneficiaries’ needs. An individual parent, however, has no way of demonstrating that their child is being uniquely affected adversely by an education policy. Still, there’s a high demand for some form of accountability, so that accountability has to be demonstrated on some sort of macro level based on some agreed-upon measure. And unlike with roads, there’s at least a (very) superficial way of testing how well the government is performing…standardized tests, and especially standardized math and reading tests (since science and history are too ripe for political controversy and are even less readily susceptible to standardized grading).

      That said, your example of roads is a good one. I’m slowly leaning towards concluding that there may be a need for a two or three-tiered system that treats rural, suburban, and urban areas differently on a federal level (although ideally, most or all decisionmaking on this would be made at the state or local levels in the first place).

      That said, and I don’t want to threadjack my own post, but isn’t there an argument to be made that the inefficient extension of roads to more rural areas has a lot of bad unintended consequences, such as encouraging greater sprawl and more driving? I’m not sure what I think about this question – I’m not overly concerned with efficiency in general -but it seems worth asking.Report

      • I’ve thought about your point 1 a little more. It’s something of a different take on the standard argument as to why anarchism is flawed (not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s a persuasive argument to which anarchists’ response relies on what I think is an overly optimistic view of human nature).

        Still, in the context of determining what is and is not a free market, I think the anarchist/mutualist arguments are persuasive even if I don’t ultimately think those arguments make the case for anarchism as an ideal social vision. True, there could not be such a thing as a “global” market, but in a state of nature, I think it’s safe to assume that there would still be non-coercive barter and exchange on a local/community/tribal level. While some humans are sociopaths, most humans are cooperative and even if only within groups, you would expect to find some kind of barter and exchange market, something along the lines of “I’ll trade you this bunch of berries I gathered for a pound of the meat that you hunted,” with the “price” of each fluctuating based on its relative plentitude or scarcity at a given moment. No coercion would be required…until a sociopath showed up and recognized that he could get the berries without giving up any meat if he just beat up the berry gatherer. Still, the “market” as it were would pre-exist the coercion – if it didn’t, we never would have survived as a species.Report

      • I take your point, particularly about the numerical emphasis and the high degree of accountability demanded of education vis-a-vis other government services. That there’s a measurable method of performance in standardized testing scores, particularly on the federal level is beyond dispute. I would however argue that this is in fact a result of market oriented valuation of education, rather than less results or efficiency oriented approaches.

        That there remains an outlet to check this overemphasis at the school board level (however inefficient, inadequate and politicized it might be) is I think as much a function of public education as it is one a failure of market forces. Even if they are a “frankenstein’s monster of political compromises” they are in the end communal compromises enforced by participation by various people. That nature of school boards is in fact more of a feature than a bug, as it introduces (somewhat) qualitative debates into what would otherwise be a quantitative argument.

        I would suggest in fact that going entirely with a voucher based system where education becomes a matter of “investing” your voucher into a school to get the outcome you want, would strip qualitative measurements out entirely and instead of the give and take of the political process, further emphasize numerical values or outcomes that can be measured, however imperfectly.

        Whether this remains standardized tests (which I doubt) or becomes something more like college admissions figures. The latter I think is more likely because of the nature of post-secondary education. It will always be more nationalized than primary education, and as such will be constricted more by results than measures such as standardized tests. When you have a market/investment system, one of the necessary measures of success I think is that there be some supply constricted commodity (like money) that can be divided up to determine the effectiveness of an investment.

        Because standardized testing is NOT a zero-sum measurement (unless you create a curved exam like the LSAT) then you wind up requiring another measure where you can objectively divide “the pie” in such a way that potential “investors”(parents) can allocate their resources for the maximum potential return.

        I think the potential problem insofar as the road analogy is concerned, is that even with equal amounts of money invested, there will always be unequal outcomes in education and therefore people will always try to flock towards the schools which produce the most desirable outcomes. You can’t move roads, but you can move people and move their vouchers along with them. Even if you tiered it at the local/state level, it would still provide incentives to move away from rural schools into those that provide better outcomes towards post-secondary admission.

        This is where I think the problem of equating education to other public goods starts to come into focus. Whereas other public goods tend to be placed on immovable or static locations AND do not have subsequent potential returns to consider, while education does.Report

  5. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Two (or more) questions:
    1. Do you oppose or favor a means test for your voucher program that would limit its availability only to poor or working class families? Would you favor or oppose limiting you voucher program to districts with demonstrably “failing” schools as the only or primary options?

    2. Are you aware of the extent to which in your discussions of this question you treat public schools as invariably, intractably, and inherently ineffectual, if not completely hopeless?Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I see above that you do assume a means test. You say you think that all voucher programs would and “probably should” have one. As a factual matter re Cleveland, Milwaukee, and D.C., I’m not sure you’re right, though you may be. But where do you in fact come down on the should? It’s a pretty central question. Should we be subsidizing families with means to opt out of public education, with effectively a property tax break (even if it doesn’t come from that pot) to do so? Or not?Report

      • Michael: To my knowledge, those programs are definitely means-tested. Certainly, the DC program was, and I’ve never heard a serious proposal that wasn’t. As for the should, I think vouchers should start out restricted to only the poorest of the poor, and then be gradually expanded to a point where anyone ineligible for vouchers makes enough money that they can have some form of school choice.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          But should there be anyone ineligible for vouchers? And doesn’t this formula apply inevitable, strong upward pressure on private school tuition as selective schools say, “Thank you very much for all the increased demand (due to subsidized ability to pay) for our product; we’re going to go ahead and raise prices on our continuingly scarce commodity now (whether that be excellent education or prestige name), since we can, and since it will help us maintain our exclusivity.”? As a proponent of economic theory and market solutions, are you not familiar with the basic theorem (whose name I don’t know but that I remember from 101) that government subsidies merely shift the cost/price structure of a market, causing firms to adjust and capture the subsidy? I wish I could be more technical, but basically aren’t subsidies, like price floor and ceilings, anathema to those who espose the free market?Report

          • Well, yes, subsidies generally have those effects, but that doesn’t undermine my point – and in fact supports it.
            First, the subsidy already exists, and no one (well, almost no one) is opposed to that subsidy’s existence because of the near-universal belief that every child should be educated – we already give every child a free education. So all we’re doing here is telling some recipients of those subsidies that they can use a percentage of those subsidies at more places than just the school around the corner. From a free market perspective, this is definitely no worse than the status quo, and is almost certainly an improvement because it allows individual recipients to set demand rather than government.

            The theory of which you speak, to my knowledge, is just the basic theory that subsidies result in an increase in supply of the subsidized product. If you’re a free market purist then, yeah, you’ll always and everywhere have a problem with subsidies. But since we don’t live in a Coasian world, I’m ok with subsidies of things that we can more or less universally agree are public goods, like education.

            In such an instance, we should want firms to change their behavior to capture the subsidy. This is especially true when, to do so, they have to offer an education that will serve the individual needs of potential students. But as things exist now, the subsidy is a direct one that can be captured by simply doing what the subsidy providers (ie, the federal, state, and local governments) dictate as being the collective (as opposed to individual) needs of students.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

              If the government subsidized “Hope Diamonds” greatly enough that everyone could afford the Hope Diamond, would everyone then be able to buy and have in their very own home the Hope Diamond?Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                (We’re both laymen in this field, I think, so I thought I’d restate my question in layman’s terms. Any market in quality education is far from a perfect market, as good education is much closer to a luxury good [a technical, not a perjorative good — quality education is a necesity, amking the reality I am describing something of a tragedy) than the type of undifferentiated good in a perfect market, where a subsidy would directly affect quantity. Where there are high barriers to entry [ie it’s hard to achieve a school that reliably provides quality education; there aren’t many of them], the result logically would come out more in higher prices than increased quantity. You can increase the incentive to provide a luxury good, but if the thing is hard enough to produce, it’s just not going to matter all that much. The Hope Diamond being the extreme — you can’t make any more of them no matter what the incentive is. [Similarly, you can’t make any more Exeters or Harvards, no matter the incentive. You can try; you can be just as “good”; but you’re still not them.] And that’s in a sense the crux of what we’re debating — just what is it exactly that is standing in the way of providing a quality education for more youngsters? It’s pretty hard to do, given the social relities in this country, even when there is plenty of incentive to do it.

                [If I was more confident I knew I what I was talking about I’d say that this is price elasticity of demand, but I’m not all that confident, so I’ll just say I think that might be what I’m describing.])Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Gak! Impossible to read the beginning of that, my apologies. Let me try again:

                Any market in quality education is far from a perfect market, as good education is much closer to a luxury good (a technical, not a perjorative term; quality education is certainly a necesity, making the reality I am describing something of a tragedy) than the type of undifferentiated good in a perfect market, where a subsidy would directly affect quantity. Where there are high barriers to entry (ie it’s hard to achieve a school that reliably provides quality education; there aren’t many of them), the result logically would come out more in higher prices than increased quantity. You can increase the incentive to provide a luxury good, but if the thing is hard enough to produce, it’s just not going to matter all that much. The Hope Diamond being the extreme — you can’t make any more of them no matter what the incentive is. (Similarly, you can’t make any more Exeters or Harvards, no matter the incentive. You can try; you can be just as “good”; but you’re still not them.) And that’s in a sense the crux of what we’re debating — just what is it exactly that is standing in the way of providing a quality education for more youngsters? It’s pretty hard to do, given the social relities in this country and the requirements of a competitive global economy, even when there is plenty of incentive to do it.

                (If I was more confident I knew I what I was talking about I’d say that this is price elasticity of demand, but I’m not all that confident, so I’ll just say I think that might be what I’m describing.)Report

  6. My naive response was too long for the comment section — so I left it at http://www.bonzai.squarespace.comReport

  7. “If your options are to get a job that you really don’t want to do or to die, that’s little choice at all.”

    This is a tad dramatic, but one other possibility is to work at a lower job until you find a better one. That’s what most people do.

    I was going to respond to the post, but it became so long, I made it a post on my blog.Report

  8. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    But keeping with the econ ideas relating to schools. If I am the principle of a large poorly functioning school and a bunch of kids leave my school to go to other schools through vouchers, the message is far from clear. Did the kids leave my school because of poor teaching or because the text books were 15 years old and i don’t have the money to buy more. Did they leave because of gang violence , which as an externality is out of my control or because of a lack of upper level elective classes? Did they leave because schools in poor districts have a chaotic, transient student population or because the teachers are burnt out? Messages are not always clear nor is information always complete.

    I think this line of questioning speaks best to this post. And this is exactly what I mean when I say that education, unlike pizza, does not so easily conform to competitive or “market” principles.

    I think it’s good that you think vouchers should be means-tested. I think that this would not be the case for long. If it were, I wouldn’t worry so much. I’ve already stated my support for vouchers being used for disabled kids who can attend special schools for their needs. That makes sense. Certainly I can see how need-based grants could be given to poor students as well in the form of vouchers and this might even make sense though I think it would only scrape the surface of the education reform problems. If you really wanted to see the power of vouchers you’d have to open them up across the board. So one thing I see happening if vouchers actually do take off is that means-testing falling by the wayside.

    Back to the “scraping the surface” argument though, one thing I really can’t stand about the voucher program is that it’s a distraction from real reform as far as I can tell. It is a magic solution that places individuality over the common good (i.e. parent choice as the Holy Grail of school reform) rather than forcing our communities to see this as a universal and shared problem. This is what I’m talking about when I speak of the commitment to public education, and how vouchers – both in practice and as a theory – diminish that commitment.
    Report

    • “And this is exactly what I mean when I say that education, unlike pizza, does not so easily conform to competitive or “market” principles.”
      But as I said above, this is exactly the dilemma faced by any business when it loses customers. The pizza store owner who loses business doesn’t have perfect information as to whether this is because of the type of cheese he uses, his location, his advertising, his atmosphere, or his service. But if customers are given a perpetual subsidy so that they can eat at his store for free forever, but have to pay to eat everywhere else, he doesn’t have to think at all about whether he’s doing something wrong. Imperfect information exists in all endeavors, public or private.

      Re: the slippery slope to the end of means-testing. The same argument could be made about any means-tested program, yet food stamps are still means-tested, as are various other programs. Even if the slippery slope were to slip, it would slip very gradually and only after the program(s) were demonstrably successful (by which I preferably mean ‘popular with parents’ rather than resulting in demonstrably higher standardized test scores).

      “one thing I really can’t stand about the voucher program is that it’s a distraction from real reform as far as I can tell. It is a magic solution that places individuality over the common good (i.e. parent choice as the Holy Grail of school reform) rather than forcing our communities to see this as a universal and shared problem.”

      This pretty well depends on what you think the problems in American education are in the first place. That said, one of the main points of this post is that there is no identifiable, universal “common good” in education, even on a purely communitarian basis. Sure, in some particularly close-knit and small communities, that may be the case, but once you get 10,000, 100,000 or 1,000,000 parents in the relevant “community,” you’re simply not going to get widespread agreement on most things (much less everything) that should be taught and how. Is the “common good” served if a child with an interest and ability for music loses access to music education because 51% of the parents in her district think that music education is less important than an extra hour per week of math instruction? Along the same lines, is the “common good” served when vocational education programs are cut because 51% (or even 66%) of parents in the district want a greater emphasis on college prep courses? If the answer to those questions is yes, then what do you propose the child who loses in those scenarios do?Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        But education is fundmentally different then pizza which is why applying the same kind of market analysis doesn’t work. Pizza, while a clear good, is not a public good. If teh pizza parlor goes out of business taht is bad for that owner but doesn’t affect teh community in a substantive manner. Schools as a public good can’t be allowed to go out of business since there is no excess capacity at other schools to pick the students and would leave a community unserved. The “law of economics” around public goods are just different then around consumer goods.Report

        • This is a different argument from the “imperfect information” argument, at least as E.D. was using it. Regardless, my point is that “imperfect information” is better than “no” information and/or no incentive to collect information beyond what is politically mandated.

          Re: the “public good” issue. I fully acknowledge that education provides a “public good.” But the reason this is the case is that we as a society have decided that not only is it a public good, but that it is valuable enough to warrant ensuring everyone have access to it. We have also, I think, determined that access to food provides a public good valuable to warrant ensuring everyone has access to it, yet we don’t mandate that people on food stamps shop at particular stores. In fact, many productive activities provide a “public good” – this, after all, is a significant part of the rationale for bailing out the auto makers. The issue is just whether we collectively value that good enough to warrant ensuring everyone has access to it – but this doesn’t mean that the only way to provide that access is by granting a de facto government monopoly thereon.

          Put another way – the term “public good” presupposes an agreement on what constitutes the “good.” The definition of the “good,” however, is not something that is objective but rather is entirely subjective. The laws of economics do not magically change when a society decides that something is a “public good.”

          As for the capacity question, this doesn’t make sense to me. If a school is losing students to a private school in the area, then by definition there is another school in the area capable of serving those students; but moreover, the public school will not be in a position to shutter its doors (and thus surrender its capacity) because the departure of those students actually leaves it better able to serve the remaining students due to the fact that the vouchers are not fully reimbursed.

          Nonetheless, as I acknowledged previously, I think voucher programs need to be implemented on a state and local level, not the federal level. Even if they were implemented on the federal level, I would have no problem, as I said, with treating urban schools differently from suburban and rural schools.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        “The pizza store owner who loses business doesn’t have perfect information as to whether this is because of the type of cheese he uses, his location, his advertising, his atmosphere, or his service. But if customers are given a perpetual subsidy so that they can eat at his store for free forever, but have to pay to eat everywhere else, he doesn’t have to think at all about whether he’s doing something wrong.”

        Just want to draw attention to the fact that in this analogy, the public schools (ie failing pizza parlor) are getting a subsidy (perhaps unjustified, Mark doesn’t make that clear) from the government in order to keep operating. I think we should dwell on this analogy and think whether it meshes with how we actually think of and experience public schools in our actual world. Do we consider the whole of public education funding to be a subsidy that is distorting what could otherwise be a well-functioning market in K-12 education? If we do, then why would we compound the problem by exanding the amount of subsidies we want to offer? We can’t cobble together an education market out of competing government subsidies. If you want perfect market-driven education, then you should call for government to get out of the business of educating kids. But as long as you are willing to continue to allow the vast majority of kids to be educated in public schools, focusing your efforts on improving their situation by giving a few of them the option of opting out is simply not to make any effort at improvement at all. It is especially unproductive when you combine that position with a rejection of any objective standard for whether improvements are being made in favor of a reductionist “parental satisfaction” standard Public schools seek to satisfy parent’s demands, but they openly and forthrightly do not place parental satisfaction above all other metrics precisely because they know that to do so would be to abandon the interest of the child in actually receiving a useful education to the knowledge, motivation, and whim of the parent, which they know all too well to be grossly unreliable. It is extraordinarily convenient to your argument to simply assert that the decision-maker’s view of the suitability of the education is the only standard that should be attended to in regard to a child’s education, when what you want is for those decision-makers to be more greatly empowered. Even the most extreme school choice proponenets acknowledge that objective assessment matters, and most private schools use test results as selling points. I personally do not wish to stand in the way of groups of committed parents in very challenged distrcts who believe that private education is the best thing for their child (though for the children’s sake, that belief should be objectively assessed), and who are requesting assistance to bring that about. What I do object to are those who on the basis of untested conjecture focus on such harrowing on-the-ground circumstances as the way to address the underlying problems facing the education system at large. That is a faith-based argument that has not been tested, and should not be on a large scale, because the costs if it does not work as expected would be too great to risk.Report

        • Michael – very well said.Report

        • Avatar Kyle in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Michael, I don’t think that’s a fair read of Mark is saying.

          I don’t think Mark is saying education reform efforts should be exclusively or even largely focused on providing vouchers but that state and local voucher programs have a place at the table.

          I’ve heard your objection innumerable times and its sister argument that vouchers simply aren’t scalable and every time it strikes me an example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

          That, to me, is like arguing that we shouldn’t have Medicare, Medicaid, or SCHIP because they don’t help everyone. However, they do help some people and I’m sure the people assisted by those programs are happier with the assistance they’ve received than in otherwise becoming a statistic in the fight for universal public healthcare or some analogue.

          Considering the glacial pace of school reform in this nation, opposition to vouchers “because they’re a distraction from real reform” dooms thousands of students to unsafe and inadequate schools each year, who lose out on real opportunities while waiting for real reform to materialize.

          Given the enormous breadth of opinions as to what constitutes a basic, good, or ideal education, I think you’re short changing Mark’s point about the value of allowing people with different educational priorities to pursue them.

          Public schools seek to satisfy parent’s demands, but they openly and forthrightly do not place parental satisfaction above all other metrics precisely because they know that to do so would be to abandon the interest of the child in actually receiving a useful education to the knowledge, motivation, and whim of the parent, which they know all too well to be grossly unreliable.

          While I strongly dispute the idea that public schools behave in the monolithic manner in which you describe, I would also point out that they place other metrics above parental satisfaction because that’s how they get funding.

          For example, student nutrition. Parents object to sodas in schools. Pepsi provides money to schools. Who wins? Pepsi.

          Teachers and states object to aspects of NCLB they believe will be counter-productive to providing a useful education to children. Who wins? The Department of Education.

          I also think the current educational paradigm bolsters Mark’s point about parental satisfaction (I would underline as trustees of their children). Private schools highlight their benefits (including success in “objective” measurements, among other metrics) and from those choices parents choose what they think will be the most rewarding environment for their child.

          It’s those secondary metrics that also matter for decision-makers. Currently if you’re a wealthy New Yorker you can choose between Saint Ann’s, Dalton, Riverdale, Horace Mann, Deerfield, Choate, Exeter, etc… based not just on good academics and high test scores but also educational philosophies.

          If you’re a poor New Yorker, you can choose between maybe P.S. 123 and a magnet school or program your child is lucky enough to get into. If that educational environment is less than ideal, rather than being able to explore other options that you can take advantage of while your child is still in public school, you’d have to find the time between work, parenting, and maybe a second job, to lobby, protest, organize, vote, etc….

          Vouchers aren’t a panacea but they do have a role in educational triage. They may not move average test scores up across the board, but they can make a hell of a difference in the life of a child at high risk of illiteracy, expulsion, dropping out, engaging in or being victimized by gang violence, etc….Report

          • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Kyle says:

            Kyle: Thank you – that saved me a lot of time! 🙂

            Michael: Just to add to Kyle’s points, this quote really bugs me as a parent who reads to his daughter almost every night:
            “Public schools seek to satisfy parent’s demands, but they openly and forthrightly do not place parental satisfaction above all other metrics precisely because they know that to do so would be to abandon the interest of the child in actually receiving a useful education to the knowledge, motivation, and whim of the parent, which they know all too well to be grossly unreliable.”

            I utterly reject the notion that improving a child’s standardized math test scores by 10 points (or whatever) is inherently in that child’s best interests more than whatever the parent (and/or the child herself in some instances) thinks is in the child’s best interest, such as an hour per week of music instruction, or PE, or art, or civics, or Vo-Tech. I can imagine few things more tragic than the idea of a child with a proclivity for any of those things being unable to pursue her dreams because some school administrator who’s never met her thinks it’s important that she get an extra 10 points on some standardized test. I also utterly reject the notion that a child in Kansas with a proclivity for science should be unable to learn about evolution because her parents can’t afford private school and the state school board has decided that learning evolution is “not in her best interest.”

            Yes, there are plenty of bad parents out there, but most parents do a pretty good job. It is utterly ridiculous that some bureaucrat might have a better idea of what is in a child’s best interests when they’ve never met that child than the child’s parents (assuming, like most parents, they’re good).Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

              I don’t believe it can remotely be argued that I suggested any of those things should take place, and in fact no where did I state that improvement on standardized tests is or ought to be the primary measure of assessment. Nor do I think it is remotely honest to suggest that assessment, a fundamental part of the educational process which was exhaustively debated surrounding NCLB in 2001 and which you should research for your own understanding, necessarily results in any of those outcomes absent other, far more determinative variables.

              (In particular your Kansas/evolution example is notably regrettable. Even setting aside that no such decision, ie that it is not in the interest of Kansas children to learn about evolution, was ever made that I am aware of, pretending that such a circumstance is or could be the result of the need for the state [or local or federal government] to assess the performance of its schools is ridiculous on its face.)

              I don’t mean to be rude, Mark, but you are frankly engaging in scare tactics here, plain and simple, and doing so via anecdotal scenarios are not clearly based in fact that I can detect.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                That said, I greatly respect your concerns as a parent and your committment to your daughter’s education. The key is to not downplay the amount of difference between her experience of our system of education, with you in her corner, and that of another girl her own age whose parent(s) are absent due to incarceration, incapacitated due to drug abuse, unable to navigate the system due to cultural or language barriers, or simply criminally indifferent to her development. There are thousands upon thousands of such children, all of whom the state is responsible for providing an education for. There is no way for the state to even attempt that task without making decisions about curriculum, and yes, assessing whether it is having any success at all. That assessment certainly does not have to be attached by the federal government to funding on a “high-stakes” basis — I think we’re both on the same side of that question — but it is a necessary part of the process of ensuring that we have a minimally educated public (whether so we can fill Ford plants or do other things), something that we as a society have committed ourselves in law through our democratic process to do.Report

              • This does not strike me as a remotely good reason to justify limiting the quality of education of the majority of children with good parents. I have no problem with establishing a minimum level, with the public schools as “default” option. But a good parent should not be required to keep their child in that “default” option if that parent is involved enough to know that another style of education would better suit that child.Report

              • Michael: Re-read the passage I quoted. It is quite clear that you think the district’s determination of what is and is not in the best interests of the child should trump what the parent thinks is in the best interests of the child. You may have problems with standardized testing, etc., but the point is that these are metrics that are actually used and actually affect what gets taught and how. Even using other assessment metrics is besides the point – there is no objectively “best” curriculum for a given child, and political decisions as to what is “best” are one-size-fits-all. The examples I gave were just that – examples. These are not scare tactics, either – vo-tech programs, music classes, art classes, and PE, amongst plenty of other programs, are disappearing left and right because of this idea that there is a one-size-fits-all objective “best” education. Such ideas treat children as machines and destroy creativity in education.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                They’re disappearing because of lack of funding, and having funding itself attached to a very limited series of standardized tests, giving districts basically no choice in how they teach. That is not how assessment has to be, and all I am trying to do here is vindicate the basic need for assessment in education.

                I certainly nowhere said that the state’s view of the child’s interest “trumps” that of the parent. What I said was that public education is exactly that — many decisions are made through a public process about what is the best way to do education for the most children. State has a view of the best instruction for kids of various profiles (there is in fact not one cookie-cutter approach, but rather public education does all it can to meet the individual needs of each child). And of the course, the parents have a view of what is best. In an ideal world, they work in concert. But there is no school in the world that can perfectly tailor intruction to the preceise demands of every parent who walks in the door. Even private schools make determinations about wha and how they teach. Moreover, it is simply the case that the state does in fact take a in the welfare of the child. If parental attention falters, a widespread reality that you seem determined not to focus on in favor of your own rosy view of what a parent should be, the state has to be ready to step in.
                When the view of the state conflicts with that of the parent, it is the state’s job to do what is in its power to accomodate the parent’s view, but given the size of the job it has to do, it is true that there is limited flexibility. At that point, parents face tough choices that are far tougher the fewer resources they have. And that’s why I don’t oppose means-tested voucher programs as a way to help involved parents who are at their wits’ end. It’s the commitment to vouchers as a theoretical-economic means to general improvement of public education that I object to. I’m having trouble understanding the level of your belief in that part of the question. But on vouchers as a tool for parents in extremis, we agree that where there is local desire to make that option available, we don’t want to stand in the way.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kyle says:

            I think I am being fair to Mark, and that you underestimate the exent to which he sees ‘choice’ and the resulting ‘competition’ as the necessary step for improving public education, without which other measure are doomed to failure. But even if I am wrong with respect to Mark, it is a fact that such a view has a broad constituency, and many very forceful exponents. Collectively they are known as the “school choice movement,” and in actual fact I was addressing their arguments more than I was specifically addressing Mark’s position, which in my estimation is not far from theirs, but you may be right that it is quite different.

            But more broadly, I’m glad that you highlight the glaring inequities generally endemic in our system of education here in this country, our country which is so fond of assertitng its broad grant of equality of opportunity to all citizens. The inconsistency between our rhetorical commitments in this area and the reality we create for our children is one of my great passions in the realm of public affairs.

            As I think I have made clear, I do not oppose those private-school choice progrmas that have been piloted in a few cities so for, nor would I oppose the creation of more where there is sufficient desire among parents to do so, precisely for the reason you give — that it would deny some number of families the ability to pursue a solution. I do oppose the broader philosophical/policy ideology that comes attached to voucher programs, which the individual families utilizing vouchers I’d venture to say are broadly indifferent to. That’s for the reasons I lay out in the comment you’re responding to here, and also for the reasons given by E.D. in his post “Misunderstanding Markets cntd.”

            One point of yours puzzles me, however. You cite the disparity between the choices available to very rich New Yorkers and that available to poor New Yorkers, and you are not wrong to do so. But is it your belief that a potential voucher program in the New York public schools would provide a great enough subsidy for a sufficiently meritorious student with very few financial resources who attended PS. XYZ in the S. Bronx for the elementary and JHS grades to attend a Saint Ann’s, Dalton, Riverdale, Horace Mann, Deerfield, Choate, etc.? I find that quite unlikely.Report

            • Never said any of that, and I’ve made abundantly clear that I’m talking almost exclusively about vouchers on local and state levels, and definitely speaking exclusively about a very means-tested program to help children whose parents lack the resources to send their child to even a low-budget private school, at least to start. The program can be gradually expanded or contracted in much the same way that we handle other social safety net programs.

              And while a voucher program would not provide access (at least without scholarships) to the richest of private schools, it would provide access to private schools that cost approximately the same (or less) as public schools. Over time, if expanded, it would also likely lead to the creation of new private schools in that price range with an ever-greater variety of programs to choose from.

              The entire point of voucher programs, everywhere they’ve been implemented, is to reduce the inequities that exist in our education system. I have no illusions that my child will ever be eligible for a voucher, nor would I even claim that she should; but I would like that children from poor families and neighborhoods have similar choices to the ones that I have.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

              This one was actually in response to Kyle.Report

            • Avatar Kyle in reply to Michael Drew says:

              Hey Michael,

              As to your question:

              But is it your belief that a potential voucher program in the New York public schools would provide a great enough subsidy for a sufficiently meritorious student with very few financial resources who attended PS. XYZ in the S. Bronx for the elementary and JHS grades to attend a Saint Ann’s, Dalton, Riverdale, Horace Mann, Deerfield, Choate, etc.? I find that quite unlikely.

              No. You’re right it’s unlikely that it would cover the full attendance costs for a student. However, it would make it easier for those schools, should they decide, to offer financial assistance to economically disadvantaged students or use their current amount of assistance to increase their enrollment of said students.

              I used Saint Ann’s, Dalton, Riverdale, Horace Mann, Deerfield, Choate, etc… not as examples of the schools poor John Doe would be able to attend with a voucher but as notable private schools to highlight the difference in educational options offered between comparably impressive schools.Report

    • Avatar Nance Confer in reply to E.D. Kain says:

      Even if they see it, what are poor parents to do?

      How about a voucher to pay for cab fare, etc., from the poor neighborhood to the school in the better-off neighborhood? Then it’s not an argument about private versus public but about choice among public schools.

      Here this devolved into “limited choice” when too many parents wanted their kids to go to good schools.

      NanceReport

  9. For some reason, my first post above was delayed for about 4 hours, and that is why there are two posts.Report

  10. Three men went off on a sailboat together, a physicist, a chemist, and an economist. Unfortunately they ran into a storm and the boat was wrecked on an uninhabited island. The only food they were able to rescue from the wreckage was a case of baked beans. As they got hungry, they began to wrestle with the problem of how to open the bean cans. The physicist said “I’ll climb a tree and throw a can onto a rock and it’ll split open.” The others didn’t much like this idea because they thought the beans would just splatter everywhere. The chemist said “We can soak the cans in salt water and they’ll rust through.” The others didn’t much like this idea because it would take too long. Then the economist said “Hay–no problem, we’ll just assume a can opener.”

    An old and revealing joke. Implicit assumptions, ‘all things being equal’, and the limits of social sciences (e.g. reflexivity, positivism vs. postpositivism) mean that there should be a lot of humility with regard to the field of economics. Just as political scientists and IR scholars had some explaining to do regarding not predicting the end of the Cold War, economics as a discipline has serious unexpected shocks (and hedging) going on that makes me reluctant to invoke the the laws of economics as authoritative. There’s definitely important theory, modeling, and description going on – and economics certainly adds a valuable perspective to the analysis – but (even with your, Mark, caveats) I’m wary of ‘immutable’ and ‘laws of economics’.

    With regard to education, I’m reluctant to support vouchers because public and private actors don’t have similar constraints/missions. Public education is for everyone, including children with special needs (ADHD, dyslexia, etc.). As I understand it, under voucher systems educators gets to pick and choose; on the whole, private schools have more flexibility in assembling classes and expelling students. I’d compare it to the universal service obligation of the US Postal Service (and Royal Mail); UPS simply doesn’t have to function under that obligation. The private operator has a structural advantage that yields profits. Vouchers extend that advantage; in terms of educating students and delivering mail – difficult cases can be sloughed off. The public system doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have that luxury.

    (I think I’d have to say it every time, but really interesting discussion.)Report

  11. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

    Sorry I’m late coming to this excellent discussion.

    Mark,

    You may have been confused because I maybe didn’t clearly articulate what I meant to say. The chill I get more has to do with the (I think) dysfunctional marriage between econ and government. It’s more the use to which an econ would be put by government that worries me. However (and here I’m more on Freddie’s side) I don’t think the argument about what a truly free market would look like makes much sense.

    Because absent a regulating force I don’t think we tend towards anarchy but rather monopoly. With a regulating force you end up with (ED’s point) a weird gov’t/business chimera. At least at the current level of our technological-business practice: econ being a reflection on the practice as currently made. If there are Economic Laws they are more like the Legal system than the world of physics. Evolving Laws.

    That double bind as I see it is the problem. If the government is going to give out money to groups then it is legitimately (at least partly) going to ask for some influence/oversight and is therefore going to go about trying to technocratically manage. I just don’t see any realistic way that a voucher program doesn’t become–when it goes through Congress–an attempt to get funds to your district in sweetheart deals.

    I’m speaking in very broad terms. Of course I imagine that if vouchers were made there would be individual success stories here and there to be sure. But beyond that I’m not really sure.Report

    • I see what you’re saying here, and the notion of excessive federal management is a troubling one. But, I don’t think that fear really makes sense here, because (1) for the most part we’re (well, at least I’m) not talking about a federal voucher program so much as state and, preferably, local voucher programs, and (2) the degree of federal influence over education is already tremendous (NCLB has killed hosts of programs like PE and music classes, amongst other things). I’d also add that I think you’re grossly underestimating the extent to which “big business” is able to influence public education due to governments’ near-monopoly thereon.

      As for a tendency towards monopoly rather than anarchy, I think this is simply wrong, if only because I think that definitionally a completely, 100% free market is anarchy. To put my Hayek hat on for a second, monopoly is impossible in a completely unregulated environment because it runs into the same calculation problem as socialism – monopoly (at least the type that is rightly feared) requires government assistance of some sort to keep competitors out of the market.

      Of course, once you accept that there is a need for government at all (and I do), monopoly of some sort becomes inevitable and you’ve crossed the threshold into a mixed economy. Even in the proverbial “night watchman” state, the State is going to demand influence and oversight over its equipment suppliers, etc. In the case of education, federal funding of local schools ensures that this influence and oversight affects local public schools as it is, to say nothing of the influence and oversight governments have over various suppliers of goods and services (including, I might add, teachers – IIRC, excessive control of public schools over teachers is one of, if not the, top reasons young teachers often don’t last very long). IOW – the existing system is already near-complete rigidity; allowing vouchers to be used at private schools can only lessen this problem.

      Re: laws of economics. To the extent there are not laws of economics, I have yet to see a single theory that even attempts to dispute that supply and demand are related to price. What a particular s + d graph may look like is obviously mostly conjecture, but I’ve never seen an alternative to the idea that price will tend to decrease as supply increases and will tend to increase as demand increases; as such, if you subsidize something, you will get more of it, which means you will at least nominally make it less expensive, and if you restrict something, you will get less of it, making it more expensive (ie, you’ll get a black market). Yes, it’s a terribly generalized proposition, which limits its utility, but it’s a proposition that seems to hold true under any conceivable economic system.Report

  12. ?The “fact” that private schools save money per student is an artifact of the reality that they don’t ?educate the tougher students. Students who represent difficult cases either couldn’t get in in the first ?place or are shipped out when they reveal themselves to be a problem. It’s just like the fact that it’s ?easy to be a superior teacher when you have no hard cases, but all well adjusted, reasonably well ?behaved students in your class.?

    In three different comment threads, Freddie has made the same claim; I’ve cited several studies showing that he is wrong, but he never ?has a response, nor (apparently) does he modify his views in the slightest. In case anyone else is interested: ?

    There are often some perverse selection effects going on with religious private schools. I’ve personally ?known troublemakers and delinquents who went to a private Christian school; apparently their ?parents thought that if they signed their kid up for a religious school, that might be the one thing that ?could straighten him out. And sometimes the religious schools think of accepting a bad kid as a way of ?reaching a lost soul.?

    Less anecdotally, James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer (in their book “Public and Private High Schools: ?The Impact of Communities”) found that “students who transfer from public sector elementary ?schools to the private sector, particularly to the Catholic sector, contain a HIGH NUMBER who were ?doing poorly, scholastically or behaviorally, in public elementary school.” (p. 112).?

    Derek Neal and Jeffrey Grogger more recently found [http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/brookings-?wharton_papers_on_urban_affairs/v2000/2000.1grogger.pdf] that “there is evidence of NEGATIVE ?SELECTION into Catholic schools. Relative to their public-school counterparts, urban whites who attend ?these schools appear to possess unmeasured traits that inhibit attainment.” They add this footnote: ??“Evidence of negative selection is common in this literature. Coleman and Hoffer (1987), Evans and ?Schwab (1995), and Neal (1997) all report evidence of negative selection into Catholic schools. A ?common hypothesis concerning this result is that some parents send their children to Catholic schools ?seeking a remedy for existing problems with discipline and motivation.”?Report

  13. The “fact” that private schools save money per student is an artifact of the reality that they don’t educate the tougher students. Students who represent difficult cases either couldn’t get in in the first place or are shipped out when they reveal themselves to be a problem. It’s just like the fact that it’s easy to be a superior teacher when you have no hard cases, but all well adjusted, reasonably well behaved students in your class.

    In three different comment threads, Freddie has made the same claim; I’ve cited several studies showing that he is wrong, but he never has a response, nor (apparently) does he modify his views in the slightest. In case anyone else is interested:

    There are often some perverse selection effects going on with religious private schools. I’ve personally known troublemakers and delinquents who went to a private Christian school; apparently their parents thought that if they signed their kid up for a religious school, that might be the one thing that could straighten him out. And sometimes the religious schools think of accepting a bad kid as a way of reaching a lost soul.

    Less anecdotally, James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer (in their book “Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities”) found that “students who transfer from public sector elementary schools to the private sector, particularly to the Catholic sector, contain a HIGH NUMBER who were doing poorly, scholastically or behaviorally, in public elementary school.” (p. 112).

    Derek Neal and Jeffrey Grogger more recently found that “there is evidence of NEGATIVE SELECTION into Catholic schools. Relative to their public-school counterparts, urban whites who attend these schools appear to possess unmeasured traits that inhibit attainment.” They add this footnote: “Evidence of negative selection is common in this literature. Coleman and Hoffer (1987), Evans and Schwab (1995), and Neal (1997) all report evidence of negative selection into Catholic schools. A common hypothesis concerning this result is that some parents send their children to Catholic schools seeking a remedy for existing problems with discipline and motivation.”Report

  14. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

    As someone who use to work in tough neighborhood Catholic schools in a couple different big US cities, there is something to what Stuart is saying.

    There is a caveat however. Those schools that have done well–and well here I define as becoming educated, going to college, etc–do so by an amazing degree of personal sacrifice on the part of the administration and teaching staff.

    You basically have to raise the children yourself. They are de facto monasteries/orphanages in the classic sense. The kids stay at the school from something like 6/7 am to 7/8 at night. They get fed I think three meals a day there, have mass tutoring.

    Now conservatives on one level love this. On another though it is essentially in a voucher system the government becoming a socialized substitute parent.

    Here Freddie and ED’s point about scale comes in. Is this model scalable? What it basically does–and I’m not knocking it I spent much time in this world–is create tunnels to the middle/upper classes, kind of social wormholes you might call them, out of low income neighborhoods. The students leave and don’t come back in most cases. [Not blaming/judging them].

    To do that on a scaled sense would require one of these (I’m hypothesizing) big government “Manhattan Projects for Education.” And I can’t see how that doesn’t start playing into a technocratic element.

    Otherwise if it stays small scale then it works for the students who can get in. Which is something valuable but it doesn’t change the basic calculus relative to the large public school system.

    You can’t engineer that level of commitment and concern and care. While the principles are easily applicable across various communities, the details are not. [Hence the technocratic thing while seductive is flawed].Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

      Otherwise if it stays small scale then it works for the students who can get in. Which is something valuable but it doesn’t change the basic calculus relative to the large public school system.

      Succinct and accurate. I’d add that location adds another dimension to the scale issue. Vouchers would probably useful in urban areas with established private schools and fairly adaptable suburban areas but (I would guess) they’d be next to useless in rural districts.

      It’s also why I think discussions between complete opposition to or support for vouchers are unproductive. I think it’d be more helpful to have a discussion about what might be an appropriate scale for vouchers within a larger cocktail of educational reform issues.

      Chris, I should really thank you for the social wormholes comment for sparking a new thought.

      In the last 55 years of post-Brown public education, talk of integration and the value of diversity has all but supplanted the original issue of desegregation. In that (fairly national) discussion we talk about racial/ethnic diversity. One of the issues that I think is joined with vouchers – though much obscured – is how they would affect (and potentially desegregate) educational pockets of class/economic homogeneity. I don’t know what I think about that, but now I am, so thanks.Report

    • Avatar Nance Confer in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

      “You basically have to raise the children yourself. They are de facto monasteries/orphanages in the classic sense. The kids stay at the school from something like 6/7 am to 7/8 at night. They get fed I think three meals a day there, have mass tutoring.”

      Many children in public school have similar schedules when before and after-school care hours are included.

      It’s a long day for everyone.

      NanceReport

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