Americans already have school choice
Austin Bramwell has penned a very convincing post over at The American Conservative on why school choice can actually lead to the dumbing-down of our schools in the name of egalitarianism and accountability. By ‘convincing’ I mean that I have been convinced by it, and that it has pulled me back from the brink of school choice advocacy and the adoption of pro-voucher views. For some time I’ve been drifting further and further from my initial anti-school-choice (especially anti-voucher) position toward one more amenable to school choice. Various horror stories have helped contribute to this drift, and I’m ashamed to say that the alarmism these stories inspired have helped form my opinions of public schools and the need for more school competition. The fact of the matter is that our public schools are sometimes very good and sometimes very bad. It depends on where you are. It depends on who you are. It depends not only on the state you live in but also the district. It may even depend only on the teacher.
America’s public schools are one example of how even governments, when subject to market discipline, can produce a superior product. Compare Soviet arms during the Cold War. The Soviets excelled at producing weapons because otherwise foreign governments wouldn’t have purchased them. Similarly, some public schools consistently excel, because otherwise they could not attract the best parents and students, thereby allowing those schools to excel, thereby attracting more good parents and students, and so on in a virtuous cycle. In both cases, governments — in contrast to the usual rule — have had to compete for customers.
The “accountability” movement, however, wishes to match customers with schools as planners, rather than the customers themselves, deem fit. School vouchers, for example, a favorite policy of “accountability” proponents, punish those very school systems that have already worked very hard, thank you very much, to attract the best students and most civic-minded parents. (It’s no surprise that vouchers have proven to be politically unpopular, including if not especially among Republican voters.) Similarly, shutting down failing schools and redistributing their students punishes those schools that have performed marginally better and thereby attracted marginally better students and parents. The “accountability” movement, in short, wants to equalize the quality of educational products, no matter the price paid for them. Whatever this merits of this policy, it surely does not show much faith in the free market.
Similarly, there is a hidden mechanism that makes the American School System work, and which modern planners ignore — namely, freedom of movement, which creates a well-functioning market for public education. Planners such as “accountability” advocates who want to turn bad schools into good ones (and, often, by implication, vice versa), no matter what their scheme, are doomed to disappointment.
No matter how you spin it, American education is and always will be a local issue. One-size-fits-all solutions mandated at the federal level will simply fail despite their many good intentions. School choice may have some benefits if it’s home-grown and cultivated in an organic fashion by local communities. Some districts may truly benefit from the addition of a few good charter schools. But no race to the top federal program based on sticks and carrots will achieve this anymore than weakening public schools through vouchers will.
Perhaps we should stop thinking that all schools should be equal, or that all students will get an equal shot at a good education. Maybe they all should, but they certainly won’t, no matter how much we wish it were so. That may sound terrible, but there will always be better and worse schools, and there will always be more capable and less capable students, and luckier and less lucky draws. And in many ways it’s odd that school choice advocates should be so egalitarian in their thinking, so starry-eyed and optimistic.
If we really want better schools in the areas that have the poorest results, we’ll have to fix communities first. And communities will need to do that from the ground up, not Washington down. That’s no simply task, but it is at least more realistic than thinking we can fix schools through federal legislation or by issuing standardized tests or pushing all students toward higher education or by sucking money from the public schools and redistributing it into private ones.
Maybe some kids would be better off learning a trade rather than finishing four years of high school and attempting college. Maybe that’s another way we can bring schools and communities back together – by reviving the long-dead apprenticeship model and getting kids working in valuable trades and accruing that much-needed work experience. That’s only one idea, and it will work in some places and not in others.
Just like the problems facing schools and school districts around the country, the successes lie in local solutions. One district may be crippled by a too-strong teacher’s union; another school may have incompetent administrators; still others may have spent too much for too little and are now facing huge cuts and budgets on the precipice of collapse. All these problems are unique and have unique solutions. But keeping education local also means that we have thousands of little laboratories to measure the success or failure of various reforms. No one solution will ever be the magic fix because no magic fix exists.