Rick Hess is back from a tour de force of the Georgian school system which, he notes, has fully embraced school choice:
Saakashvili and his libertarian-leaning allies took school choice seriously when they waded into education policy. They weren't kidding around, drafting a law guaranteed to bring smiles to my friends at the Cato Institute. The 2005 law on general education, as enacted by parliament, declared, "The state shall protect freedom of educational choice of a pupil and a parent...The state shall finance education of a pupil from the central budget by a voucher [and] every parent has a right to get a voucher for financing the education of a child who reaches school age." And, just for good measure, showing the libertarian bent bred by close to a century of Soviet subjugation, the law also states that, "Violation of editorial independence of school editions and censure of books within the school library shall not be allowed" and that "a school has no right to lead or control the process of meeting of pupils, parents, or teachers against their will."
While I support the idea broadly, I have several concerns about school choice, and I’ll sum them up below. The most important of all, however, is:
Implementation is key. School choice in theory makes perfect sense. You take what is essentially a highly monopolized industry, heavily under the sway of powerful public unions and quite often poorly administered by highly overpaid public administrators, and you break it up by giving consumers (i.e. families) vouchers and/or the ability to attend a charter school.
In Sweden, school choice is commonplace. Private individuals or groups can run schools and students can choose between public institutions or private ones and do so entirely for free, using a ‘virtual voucher’ system which allows state funding to be directed to any school a parent chooses to send their child to. Sweden has managed to implement their own school choice system quite well.
In Georgia, however, the new voucher model is running into some problems, as Hess notes in a follow-up post:
Georgia offers a terrific illustration of the difference between choice in theory and in practice. The theory of choice requires that schools compete for students, with rewards flowing to schools that attract students (and therefore revenues) and adverse consequences to those that do not. However, in Georgia, there is no shame in being director (e.g. principal) of a school whose revenues do not cover its outlays. Indeed, half or more of the nation's 2,300 schools are now "deficit" schools. […]
School directors in this market-driven system supposedly have the legal authority to dismiss teachers but explain that they cannot do so in practice because of court rulings and local resistance. The lack of a quality assessment instrument means that directors may lack legal grounds for terminating agreements. The result? A 2009 "Need Assessment for Principals" study authored by two Georgian researchers reported that approximately 90% of dismissed teachers win court disputes after a termination--forcing directors to take them back "even in cases of gross violation of school ethics." Also, directors technically have the authority to assign teachers instructional hours, but they routinely turn that decision over to teacher committees.
Once again, we can see all the ways in which school choice is not a self-executing strategy or a panacea. It is one useful tool in smart efforts to rethink schooling, but it has to be approached accordingly.
This is only one set of problems facing school-choice implementation. Others include some of my secondary worries over school choice in practice vs. school choice in theory.
Traditionally, schools have been foundations of local communities. Local values are woven into the fabric of our public school system since schools have always been, at least in America, a local affair. Certainly over the past decade busy-bodies in the federal government have begun pecking away at this status quo, but for the most part schools remain largely funded by local governments and run by local people. The community school, however, seems to be on the way out for better or worse, and this should ring at least a few alarm bells.
3. Lack of competition and rent-seeking
School choice should lead to schools competing for students (while collaborating on the larger project of educating America’s youth) but this doesn’t always happen. For one thing, vouchers and funding for charter schools can attract rent-seekers in the private industry, out to make a buck off the American taxpayer. While charters and private vouchers can get around the problem of entrenched teachers’ unions, in a non-competitive climate these institutions can become just as bad as the public schools they were meant to replace. Overpaid public administrators can just as easily be replaced with overpaid private administrators. Competition is supposed to account for the lack of oversight present in private schools, but competition isn’t guaranteed.
4. Crowding out of low income students
Poor competition and the brain-drain effect – wherein good charter schools or private schools recruit the best performing students out of poor neighborhoods, leaving the community school with only underachievers – can lead to even more inequality in our educational system, and further distorting the educational playing field. There is no magic bullet to prevent this from happening, especially in the early stages of school-choice implementation.
5. Corporatization of education and the loss of public commitment to education
Last, but not least, is the corporatization of education. Education for all American children is one of this country’s greatest achievements. Our public schools have historically produced innovative, bright, and industrious individuals. This is partly due to our public commitment to education and opportunity for every child, no matter their economic standing. School choice doesn’t necessarily lead to a loss of this public commitment, but we certainly run that risk any time we take something out of the public’s hands and place it into the hands of private individuals or corporations.
In the end, school choice is just one of many ideas to improve educational outcomes in America. There are risks we run when implementing it, but those risks do not outweigh the benefits of at the very least giving school choice a shot. More importantly, we need to keep education local and adaptive. Unions have too much control now, but further nationalizing the system will only lead to less diversity, innovation, and competition between schools.
We should be finding ways to keep American schools vital and dynamic by avoiding the mediocrity of a national curriculum.