The Strange Fascination with School Choice

Somehow School Choice has developed quite a following among otherwise rational people who do in fact understand how the free market works. Mitt Romney, with his speech on educational reform to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has apparently joined the believers.

School choice sounds good when its supporters talk about it. Instead of forcing children to go to their neighborhood schools, provide vouchers allowing them to attend any school in their district or even region. This will force schools to compete for students, rewarding the good schools and forcing the bad schools to improve, leading to a better education for all students. But that’s not even how the free market works, let alone how our educational system would work in response to market pressures. Lots of mediocre companies hang on for years or even decades selling an inferior product just because they are still the most viable option for some people. Why would schools be any different?

And think about the impact on the education children would receive. With the implementation of school choice many students would quickly leave the district’s bad schools and so decrease their funding. But the schools’ expenses are not completely tied to the number of students. A school, like any other operation, has fixed and variable costs. Even if half the students leave the fixed costs remain the same; the lawn still has to be mowed once a week. So what happens? Variable costs would have to be cut disproportionately; extra teachers would have to be fired, increasing average classroom size. Conceivably all the teachers could be fired but the building itself would be kept open, able to meet only its fixed costs.

And what happens if enrollment is not even sufficient to meet fixed costs? Does the school close down, the remaining students simply bussed to one of the “good” schools? Successful schools could certainly expand to take advantage of the increased demand. But how would this work? How does the school district decide when to expand a school? Can the school district afford this over-capacity, building more classrooms while whole buildings are underutilized? Or do individual schools issue bonds? What if a school over-anticipates its potential for expansion, overbuilds, and cannot pay its bills? It might be doing a good job of serving the students it has but still not able to make its construction bond payments and so be forced to close. This happens all the time in the free market – successful companies eventually fail because they over expanded or grew beyond the skills of their management teams. Why would schools be any different?

These aren’t imaginary problems but decisions the market makes every day. Even a cursory attempt to imagine how market principles would actually work when applied to the real decisions facing school districts very quickly highlights just how far-fetched the idea of School Choice is. Frankly, the theory has only a passing connection to the real world.

A voucher program can certainly allow motivated parents in poor neighborhoods to get their clever children into better schools and so improve the education their children receive. But it does nothing for the majority of students at under-performing schools and arguably even makes their educational experience worse. We as a society can’t afford this – we need to give every child access to a quality education.

At many inner-city schools this isn’t happening – too many children don’t graduate and many of the graduates don’t have the skills they will need to participate in our economy. School Choice isn’t the answer – it won’t fix the problems it claims to fix, would increase school districts’ costs and would cause a whole new batch of problems. And unfortunately the time we spend debating this far-fetched theory keeps us from having a real conversation about how we can improve our schools.

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