School choice: like kryptonite to liberals
Ezra criticizes supporters of school choice, citing the example of a voucher program in place in the D.C. school system:
Given that a lot of this conversation (about vouchers) has actually been about the DC public school system, this data is relatively important. Again, it doesn’t mean that experimentation couldn’t have positive impacts — say, under charter schools, where pubic accountability is retained — but this intense focus on vouchers stems from a commitment to economic orthodoxy, not because the programs have any proven results.
I frankly don’t get the reluctance of my fellow economic liberals to support injecting competition and choice into the K-12 model. I agree that libertarians have a lot of nutty ideas with respect to the role of government and the efficacy of markets (they underestimate the former and overestimate the latter). But it seems to me they’re basically correct about the desirability of funding students instead of funding schools.
Now, just to clarify, I’m not some kind of concern troll here. On this and other forums I’ve called for an additional $600 billion in federal safety net enhancements (that’s totally doable, by the way — we’d only be looking at an additional 4-5 points of GDP, which would still leave us way south of the EU average). And I want to see this type of government funded with a rather Nordic combination of progressive income taxes and consumption taxation. Give me Denmark in America, baby. There’s no question but that I’m an economic liberal of a rather robust sort.
But as long as government is willing to spend what it ought to be spending, it seems to me it shouldn’t be engaged in actually owning, managing and operating the facilities that provide services (such as schools) unless there’s no alternative, or unless there’s some utterly compelling reason it’s better to do it this way. You don’t have to be a loony libertarian to like the cool things given to us by free markets. I likes me some big robust safety nettage and very free (albeit prudently regulated) markets.
And any way, lots of government benefits are already portable: Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps and Social Security to name a few. I would imagine the quality of, say, grocery store services enjoyed by retirees or poor people genuinely would suffer if, instead of issuing Food Stamps and Social Security checks, we “assigned” the recipients of such programs particular stores where they were required to do their shopping (the only way out being the purchase of an expensive address in an pricey “shopping district” where they have fancier stores). Anyway, I suspect we are already getting some sort of reduction in the quality of public education because of a similar lack of competition in public K-12. I don’t think this is a liberal or conservative thing. I think it’s simple human nature. Unless the possibility of failure exists (ie., losing your customers to the competition) there’s simply no sufficiently powerful leverage to insure that schools — just like, say, software companies and hospitals and law firms and universities – are constantly striving to improve their “product.” The latter institutions are all capable of losing their customers. But K-12 public school mostly aren’t.
I rather have the notion that school choice is for American liberalism what, say, the politics of homosexuality is for American conservatives. Surely a lot of libertarian-minded American conservatives know in their heart of hearts that, in addition to being immoral, it’s simply nonsensical to base much of your platform on being nasty to gay people.
Similarly, most liberals these days are perfectly comfortable with free markets. We enjoy the better restaurants, fancy IPhones and improved coffee competition brings us. Indeed, we’re quick (and rightly so) to sic the Justice Department on would-be monopolists, because we know restraint of trade harms society.
So, why, when there are no reasons based on technical feasibility or efficaciousness to oppose a market approach to K-12, are we so stubborn? After all, such liberal societies as Sweden and The Netherlands have apparently enjoyed pretty good success with allowing taxpayer money to follow students to the schools of their choice. And indeed in America we ourselves have enjoyed world-leading success with the way we structure post secondary education– a sector characterized by competition, choice, and funding portability. A sector, in other words, that is structured a lot like a voucher program.