Arnold Kling  

Mainstream Views of School Vouchers

Unbroken--and the Bomb... Britain in the 1840s...

The economists were asked about the statement

The main drawback to allowing all public school students to take the government money (local, state, federal) currently being spent on their own education and turning that money into vouchers that they could use towards covering the costs of any private school or public school of their choice (e.g. charter schools) would be that some students would not make an active choice and would be left with much worse peers and a weaker school.

78 percent either agreed or strongly agreed. Edward Lazear gave something close to my answer:

The main disadvantage to vouchers is potential weakening of public schools. But those that would lose students are terrible already.

What strikes me is that the overwhelming majority of these mainstream economists do not have confidence in the ability of people to choose for themselves. This may blunt one of the criticisms of economists, which is that they are too inclined to treat consumers as rational.

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Ted Levy writes:

I'm not sure that your conclusion follows at all. Of course you've read the study and I haven't but based on what you've offered, it seems the following analogy would be apt:

Q: The main problem of carrying large sums of cash is that some people might be robbed, and if they are, they'll lose more cash than they otherwise would.

85% of economists agree with that.

Does it really follow that 85% of economists therefore think it LIKELY that you'll be robbed if you carry large sums of cash?

To say that a large majority of economists think X is the main disadvantage of vouchers is different from saying the large majority of economists think X is likely. But to conclude that "the overwhelming majority of these mainstream economists do not have confidence in the ability of people to choose for themselves" you'd have to believe they think it likely, wouldn't you?

Henry writes:

The question I always ask when people oppose market reforms is "what is special about this case?" Given that they usually support markets in almost every other area, why would outcomes be so bad here?

For instance, suppose all residences were centrally planned - you lived where the government told you where to live. A reformer proposed a free market in housing. Would these same economists pan this idea on the basis that many people would be left in bad neighbourhoods? I mean, this is the actual reality today. But anyone who proposed central planning in housing would be condemned as totalitarian. There are a few differences of course, but I think status quo bias is largely to blame for the discrepancy.

Zubon writes:

Ted Levy seems quite on the mark. If that is the maindrawback, the case against vouchers must be pretty weak. "Not everyone is made better off" is not such a bad worst case scenario.

Brandon Dutcher writes:

As interesting as this is, it seems to me the preceding question in the survey is even more so. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that 44 percent of economists agreed that public-school students would be better off if they had vouchers, while only 5 percent disagreed.

Mike Hammock writes:

David Figlio gave a lecture at MTSU two weeks ago on market-based education reform. His view was exactly the opposite, at least for low-income children: Children who remain behind in low-quality public schools actually end up doing better. His best guess as to why this would be the case is that such schools are at risk of losing their Title 1 funding, and therefore are under very strong pressure to improve performance and keep additional kids from leaving.

If it would be helpful, I could try to figure out on which studies he based this opinion.

Ken B writes:

My reaction is the same as Ted Levy, with a cynical twist: juiced. I mean, look at question A then B. B is overly specific compared to A. It's like 'forcing' in a magic cat. It's like Ted's example compared to "carrying large cash amounts is still convenient today" or some such. A gets the answer we know is sensible but B is crafted to create a counterpoint. The sudden uptick in specificity shows intent.

Grant Gould writes:

You don't have to throw away the notion of people making rational choices for themselves to discern a principle-agent problem where parents choose schools for their children.

Of course much the sample principle-agent problem exists with the state making the choice. The empirical question, then, is in what fraction of cases does the state choose better than the parents; the answer is unlikely to be zero, and if the fraction is large then it may have large implications (I expect it is small, but I am not yet convinced by the evidence I've seen).

pyroseed13 writes:

Henry brings up a very good point. What exactly makes education a special case? Economists are typically opposed to monopolies, so why would they be so inclined to support a government monopoly in education? People would agree that food is essential to survival, yet we don't ask government to run our supermarkets. Instead, we have private competition and food stamps, which is a voucher system, to help the disadvantaged. I really find it difficult to believe that that market-based reforms in education would make most people worse-off.

happyjuggler0 writes:

I don't understand the concept of "some students will be stuck in bad schools".

First, far too many students are stuck in bad schools right now.

Second, with vouchers why wouldn't the good schools simply expand, thus taking in new students?

I find it hard to believe, indeed absurd, that many parents would choose to continue sending the kids to bad schools knowing that good schools have slots available.

Then the bad schools go out of business, even before all the students leave, just like any other bad business in a competitive market that can't cover overhead with a small clientele. No bad schools means no kids are stuck in bad schools.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

The children of parents who do not care will inevitably and obviously have lower overall outcomes than parents of children who do. No amount of government coercion will change that stark fact.

Parents who care will accept inconvenience to get their children an advantage. In the absence of school vouchers, we moved house to get our children into a good school district. Parents with any compassion for their children ought to do the same thing, but they don't care enough.

Vouchers would allow parents who care less to have similar advantages to those who care more. It is a disgraceful system that requires you to move house to get your children into a good school. I suspect the 'bad' parents insist on pulling the voting lever that traps their children in this miserable cycle. So, overall, the hell with them.

Floccina writes:

On the subject, I do not like vouchers, my reasons are:

1. They may cause more over spending in an already overbought market.

2. They may lead to the corruption of private schools.

3. They are unlikely to improve test scores, which seems to be the goal of many. (The test scores seem to be pretty intractable. The tests seem to be more like IQ tests than many like to believe.)

4. They still give the illusion that it is the Government's job to push children to get educated.

Rather, I would like to see to government schools start to charge the rich and middle class directly full cost for each child that they put in Government schools.

Floccina writes:

Oh and another reason I do not like vouchers is that they discriminate against home schooling.

Seth writes:
But those that would lose students are terrible already.

...and choice is the reason they lose those students, as middle and higher income parents choose to send their kids elsewhere. Might as well empower lower income folks to make that same choice.

Jim writes:

Another issue that has made me less enthusiastic about vouchers is that they will increase the tuition at private schools in a similar manner to tuition increases seen at colleges with subsidized student loans. "Exclusive" schools will remain exclusive with tuition likely higher than baseline by an amount closely following the value of the vouchers available to their students.

SWH writes:

The answer may be gov't abandoning its involvement in education entirely. In the short run, the lower half of the population will have marginally less education. Customized private schools will provide education for the other half. Businesses will probably institute/support trade schools and apprenticeship programs that in the long run will be better for all.

Once we eliminate the myth that the government is responsible for educating the young, parents will not be able to hide from the responsibility and the consequences of failure. They will be more able/likely to act "rationally".

Methinks writes:

What is going on with mainstream economists?

If everyone were given the option to choose their school, then everyone is richer by that one option. They're better off.

If some people choose not to exercise the option to switch schools, then they are still better off because they are richer by the option to do so. Repeatedly, I might add. It's an option without any real expiration.

An option is valuable whether or not one chooses to exercise it.

Why are so many mainstream economists so opposed to making the poorest people richer (the rich can already buy the more expensive option of private school)?

Furthermore, that option belongs to the students and parents. What right has government (or a posse of economists) to take it from them - especially using only the flimsy excuse that some may choose not to exercise it?

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