A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

In a recent Mlive.com article, W.E. Upjohn Institute economist Tim Bartik says that school choice is an ineffective tool for improving education. The arguments he uses, however, ignore inconvenient truths that would render his arguments meaningless.

First, he states, “[T]here's no evidence to suggest that choice works very well” to improve academic outcomes. One must ignore a lot of research to make such a broad generalization. There are several studies of charter public schools that show students making significant learning gains. For example, Harvard economist Thomas Kane found “large positive effects” in a study of Boston charters, and a study by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby showed charter school students in New York City making huge academic gains compared to their peers.

Both of these studies use the “gold standard” of social science research — random assignment. In addition to these, there are 10 random assignment studies of voucher programs in places like Milwaukee, New York City and Washington, D.C. Of these, nine found statistically significant positive academic effects for at least some voucher participants, and one showed no statistically significant effect. None showed negative effects. This research was just highlighted by nine different education scholars and economists in an Education Week article.

There are 19 other studies of voucher programs in the United States that suggest these policies improve conventional public schools, too. This research cannot make use of random assignment, but nevertheless, 18 of the 19 show public schools improving as a result of voucher programs. The other study finds no statistically significant effect.

One may quibble over the exact interpretation and potential implications of this research, but clearly there is at least some evidence suggesting that school choice programs can work.

In fairness, perhaps Bartik was referring to large-scale school choice systems, especially since that appears to be the focus of the rest of his arguments. The evidence cited above comes only from small and rather restrictive programs. But even if this is the case, it’s a meaningless point, since genuinely free K-12 markets have never been tried in the U.S. (There is international evidence that market-based education systems work better than centrally planned ones, however.)

Even so, Bartik says that educational markets wouldn't work, because parents couldn’t get good information about school quality, and this would hinder their ability to make wise decisions. Parents would also have to rely on “deferred information,” meaning they won’t know if their choice of schools was a good one until it’s too late (their child can’t get into college, get a job, etc.).

There’s no disputing that it’s difficult matching each child with his or her optimal schooling environment. But the inconvenient truth ignored here is that the current school monopolies suffer from the exact same problem. School officials, state bureaucrats and policymakers have to make decisions on behalf of hundreds, thousands and sometimes millions of other people’s children based on the same imperfect information, making it impossible for them to act in the best interest of every single child.

In other words, in an education marketplace, parents would need to make decisions based on imperfect information, but the alternative is a top-down system that decides for them with even worse information.

A final inconvenient truth left unaddressed in these arguments is that many parents already actively choose where to send their children to school. They primarily select schools by choosing where to live or by paying for private schools. Most of the school choice programs in the U.S. are aimed at enabling more parents to choose where their children attend school, not just the ones who have the means to do so. Therefore, the debate about school choice isn’t whether or not we should allow it, but rather how many parents will have the power to choose the school they think is best for their child.

St. Lawrence University economist Steven Horwitz discusses how the minimum wage was used to block immigrants from taking scarce jobs during the depression era. See more at "Raising the Minimum Wage, Lowering Opportunity."


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