School Choice — Why No One Actually Wants the Free Market

Why do people say, “Everyone should be able to have school choice”?

First of all, they do.  Second of all, why is choice a good thing?

I know why they say this, of course.  We live in a country that fetishizes the market, distrusts government, bows down to innovators, looks askance at credentials.  We’re a country of gated compounds, semi-automatic weapons, sections of New York that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade. We’re obsessed with competition.  Our favorite sport causes brain damage. Our president is definitely going to hell.

Dammit, don’t tell us what to do.  We’ll make up our own minds, thank you very much.  Give us liberty — and choice — or give us death.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am 100% in favor of traditional school choice.  By that I mean private schools. Every child in America should be able to attend private school if he wants.  But that’s not what people mean when they say school choice.

Even without private schools, Americans have school choice right now — just not in the way they want it.  People have some magical ideas about what “choice” is and can accomplish.

Here are the things I don’t get.  

1.  When anyone says people are “trapped” in their local school

Umm, aren’t those people free to move?  If they lust after Springfield High, then move to Springfield.  Wait, you can’t afford to? Then get a better job. That’s how the free market works.

What’s that?  The free market isn’t fair?  It tends to sort winners from losers, not lift all boats?

And you want MORE of it, not less?

Come on.  Poor kids are still going to live farther from the good schools.  That distance plus the rigors of the application process will always discourage them from attending “better” schools.  So will entrance policies that either subtly discriminate toward students with disabilities, or can be gamed via test prep and resume padding.  The deck will still be stacked.

Meanwhile, the wealthier people will still want to be among their own kind.  Once their local schools are flooded with needy out-of-towners, they’ll pull their kids and put them in private schools.  Or they’ll move even further away and form wealthy people colonies all over again.

It has happened over and over.  That’s the free market, baby.

What, you don’t like?

2.  When people say, “It’s self-evident.  Everyone wants a choice.”

No.  As the writer Peter Greene has astutely pointed out, people do not want choice.  They want a quality school.  That’s different. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think Vermonters living in the Stowe or CVU districts are saying, “Boy, I wish I had school choice.”

Remember how the Paul Ryan healthcare plan passed last year?  Me either. Why? Because no one wants choice. I don’t want the option of four different hospitals.  I want one quality hospital near my house. I don’t want to spend time leafing through the fine print of eighteen possible health plans.  I just want a cheap one that works.

Same with schools.  I just want a good one that works for my child.

3.  Here’s something else I don’t understand: Liberals who are against the ills of privatized healthcare and big business . . . who want to privatize education through charters and choice.  

So many Democrats decry the kind of wealth inequality perpetrated by free market capitalism.  But then they want to turn around and toss the keys to a bunch of fly-by-night charter operators?  Somehow private healthcare companies are the Bad Guys because they’re trying to make a living off sick people, but private school companies that want to make a living by skimming bright students and making fraudulent claims are somehow encouraging healthy competition?  Why is that?

4.  People who say “public education is a monopoly”

You’re telling me that a decentralized system of hundreds of thousands of local schools, each one run by its own, idiosyncratic locally elected school board — is somehow a monopoly?  Vermont alone has 264 school districts, each with their own board of directors. That’s not exactly a table of fat cats at Standard Oil bleeding the country dry.

If you don’t like what’s happening with your local school, you can attend board meetings, stand on the stump, bang your fist, even call up the local school board rep and vent to your heart’s content.  You can wage a campaign to get her fired. You can get elected yourself and hold the superintendent’s feet to the fire. Or the principal’s. I’ve seen it — over and over and over. It’s called local control.  We have it in public schools.

Monopolies don’t.

Now, is it a monopoly for those people in town?  I guess. But that’s like saying the police department is a monopoly.  Or the water company. Or the fire department. Like those services, education is not a commodity.  It is a civic responsibility.

But education is not a commodity.  It’s a public good.

5.  People who think choice leads to quality

It doesn’t.  Choice leads to competition, not to quality.  That’s a big difference. The market is good at creating competition for what it believes people want.  My town in New Hampshire has a lot of restaurant choices. Most of them, however, are not very good. They’re fast food — because that’s what the demand is for.  Choice promotes competition — but only for what people want. In my town, you’ll get quick drive throughs. You’ll get a hefty dollar menu. You’ll get a wide variety of cheap, processed food.  If MacDonalds was the only game in town, food wouldn’t be as fast, as cheap, or as varied. That’s what competition does. It fulfils demand — and there is demand for fast food.

But does the market produce quality restaurants?  Of course not. We don’t have any three-star Michelin cuisine.  Why? There’s no demand. The free market doesn’t promote quality per se — only competition.

Think about the implications.  People want their kids to get good grades and get into college.  Won’t that lead schools to compete for applicants by inflating grades and test-prepping the SAT and AP exams?  Or by simply spending more and more money on marketing, promising the moon and stars to parents (while neglecting teaching and learning)?

I sometimes think part of the reason public schools are so maligned is that they rarely spend time on P.R.  But do you really want to live in a world where they do?

6.  People who forget the math

Schools cost money.  A lot of money. Everyone forgets this.  Even tiny local schools routinely have yearly budgets totaling well into the millions.  The math only works if:

1)  Everyone in town is paying, even those with no kids (public school model)

2)  Only attending families pay, but tuition is very high (private school model)

Most private school tuitions today are in the $50,000 range.  Even imagining that we ended property taxes, can you imagine a universe on which most families could even manage half of that — for even one kid?  Me either.

So now you’re back at Option 1.  But why is it fair for some people in town to be able to take their money and spend it elsewhere?  What if I, as a resident with no kids, don’t like the local school’s approach and no longer want to support it?  I can’t take my money and spend it bankrolling another school I like better. But school-age parents can? How is that fair?

7.  People who don’t like roving gangs of youth criminals

Okay, no one likes this.  But that’s why we put lots of money into schools that give young people productive ways to channel their energies.  Otherwise . . . youth gangs.

But what about people who want to use public money to pay for private school?  Don’t those people still get to enjoy walking through town unmolested? How is that fair?

You know what I mean.  

8.  People who say, “All children should have access to a quality education”

Great.  Access. That’s like saying, “All teachers should have access to a great salary.” No thanks.  I’ll just take a great salary. “Access” gives me nothing.

Same with schools.  We’re so daunted by the prospect of turning around schools steeped in poverty that it’s like choice advocates have given up and want to give people “access” to the market, and let the chips fall where they may.  That’s a lot different than trying to make sure every kid actually HAS a good school.

In the end, that’s what choice is — it’s access.

And if you think about it, that’s the system we already have.  You can move where you want. Only, even though it seems fair, it isn’t.  

Markets never are.