Bryan Caplan  

Free-Market Education Reform: Austerity vs. Choice

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In response to my defense of austerity over "constructive" free-market reforms, Adam Ozimek blogs:

I find plausible his speculation that privatizing social security could lead to policies intended to prop up the stock market, like TARP x 100. However, I have a hard time imagining how more school choice could backfire in a way that leads to more a more "statist" education system, another example that he gives.

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My challenge for Bryan is this: tell me a conceivable story where more vouchers and charter schools lead to some sort of blowback that results in an education system that is more "statist" than the status quo.

How about: Once vouchers create a massive industry that is almost entirely dependent on vouchers, the industry incessantly propagandizes and lobbies for ever-larger subsidies?  Public schools, teachers' unions, etc. already do this, of course.  But I'm worried that the private sector's public and government relations would be slicker and more energetic.

Given a choice between choice and the status quo, I'd still probably choose choice.  But given a choice between choice and austerity, austerity's the way to go.

Update: Ozimek replies.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
John Thacker writes:
Once vouchers create a massive industry that is almost entirely dependent on vouchers, the industry incessantly propagandizes and lobbies for ever-larger subsidies?

I think you would be remiss in not mentioning private universities and their propagandizing for subsidies-- but also note that those are the virtuous "non-profits" that do so.

Brian Moore writes:

"My challenge for Bryan is this: tell me a conceivable story where more vouchers and charter schools lead to some sort of blowback that results in an education system that is more "statist" than the status quo."

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/09/why-michelle-rhees-education-brand-failed-in-dc/63014/

Here's one. It's not even hypothetical. You can argue about whether or not the changes being debated truly embodied "school choice" but they were definitely perceived as being of that flavor. I think the article is full of crap, but it's pretty typical stuff. There is really, really, really extreme status quo bias here, and while I still support reform, you are right to claim that we need to be very careful.

Skinner Layne writes:

Bryan,

The most significant problem with a voucher system is that it would almost inevitably be accompanied by a credentialing system to certify certain private schools' elegibility for participation and deny it to others.

In addition, the instant an educational institution becomes a recipient of government money, it changes the "rules of the game" for that institution. Suddenly all manner of public policy and constitutional issues apply to the institution even though it is technically private. The courts grant private institutions far less leeway in 1st Amendment cases, especially, if the university accepts students on federal financial assistance programs. Excluding students who are on federal financial assistance dramatically lowers a university's prospective student body, and there seems to be no compelling reason to believe that this differs in any material way from what a voucher system would look like in primary and secondary education.

From a libertarian perspective, the battles over these issues, and whose curriculum fits the criteria (which will probably be established by a government agency and not by an elected legislative body) will only increase the societal rifts that already exist in the educational arena. If the goal of libertarians is to reduce the influence government policy has on society, vouchers would be inherently counter-productive. Let's look at two examples:

Although I am not sympathetic with the views of evangelical conservatives, they comprise a high proportion of private schooling in America. They might actually be made less competitive by the implementation of a voucher+credential system if they were denied proper credentials for failing to teach evolution, for example, as part of the science curriculum. The 20% of Americans that identify themselves as evangelicals would be inherently outnumbered if there were a direct vote held on the issue (one would presume), but that is not even how such an issue would be decided. Whether at the state or federal level, a department of education bureaucrat, or better yet, a committee of them, would design the rules to determine whether a particular school qualifies for the voucher system. Typical Christian School in Georgia might choose not to teach evolution and would thereby be denied access to the voucher system.

This, at least in my view, wholly defeats the purpose of "school choice," and yet anytime public funds are involved, most people will at least agree that there must be some basic rules governing who qualifies and who doesn't (ignoring the obvious market-based answer that there would be a flight to quality over time), and then myriad political battles would ensue over the limitations agencies have in defining those criteria, with every further congressional or state legislative election including some element of education politicking.

We could imagine the foregoing paragraph also applying to a school that decided to focus its curriculum on, say, economics. The all-knowing educational bureaucrats might prohibit certain points of view from being included in the curriculum (one could easily imagine that a variety of libertarian views might be included on the hit-list) or that other views must be included in the curriculum (Lord Keynes, et al), again defeating the notion of choice entirely.

Worse still, the voucher system would create the illusion of greater liberty where none actually exsted. One of the most significant barriers for libertarianism is the widely held, but mistaken view, that we are already extremely free. The language of freedom, even the "liturgy" of freedom exists throughout society and our institutions, but it has increasingly become hollow. The so-called "constructive free market reforms" only fuel this hollow liberty, adding a few psalms to its worship, without adding to its substance.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I presume Bryan's definition really means "Federal Austerity". Local politics could spend as much or as little as they like, and organize school systems any way they like. Voters could move district or if necessary move state if they don't like it - an improvement over the present, where there is no escape from the awful Federal education system.

Chris Koresko writes:

I think I'm with Bryan on this one, if only because the drastic increase in per-pupil spending over the last few decades has resulted in no significant improvement in the quality of their education. It would surely be a good thing to back-track to where we were in 1970, say: the students might learn just as little as they do now, but at least we'd recover a significant fraction of GDP.

Perhaps (which I think is part of Bryan's point) that would also undercut the entrenched interests that are preventing meaningful education reform.

floccina writes:

I agree with Bryan and Chris Koresko.

IMO the biggest and most achievable gain from privatizing schooling (by charging user fees to rich and middle class) would be much lower costs, NOT better educated people.

That though, I do hold out hope that if people paid directly for schooling they push the schools to teach more practical and useful things. Students would not be smarter or do better on standardized test but might be better repaired for life.

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