Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The problem with school choice?

It has recently occurred to me that many people who object to "school choice" policy programs hold these two opinions in their heads at the same time:

  1. Funding good school districts everywhere is important.  We can see how important it is to people because there is a huge premium in real estate where schools are better.  Families seek out better school districts and they are willing to pay to be in those districts.  This ends up being unfair because marginalized families are priced out of those districts and are not able to attend the schools they would prefer to attend.
  2. School choice doesn't work because it is very difficult for families - especially marginalized families - to "shop" for a school.  They don't have the time or the ability to know, really, which schools are better, so the idea that they have a choice is sort of a misnomer.  They will end up in schools that are underperforming, just because it is so difficult to accurately audit the schools to know which ones are performing well for your children.


  1. I'm not sure that is entirely accurate. I can only speak for myself here, of course. Some background - I am a real estate professional, and in the course of my career have helped finance four different charter schools, both representing the school and representing public agencies and banks financing these schools. I have also spent a number of years advising national REITS, local developers, and public entities about real estate development and market activity. I follow both your writing as well as Scott Sumner, among others.

    I am personally a bit ambivalent regarding "school choice," leaning towards opposed. In point 1, you may be fairly characterizing some people's opinions, and it may indeed be mutually exclusive with point 2. However, both you and your imaginary school choice critic may be wrong about how people "shop" for schools.

    I think it is fair to say that affluent families "shop" for school districts, but that doesn't mean that affluent families can effectively identify "good" schools. It is easy to identify schools with good test scores and schools with bad test scores, and therefore assume it is a "good" school. These affluent families may be confusing the effect of a high-income population for the effect of good educational practices. Similarly, a low-test school may be overperforming a low-income population, but it can be hard for a layperson to tell.

    There should theoretically be some advantage to buying a cheap house in a "good" school serving a low-income area, but since no one knows how to tell a good school from a bad school the risk is very high that you pick poorly. So everyone bids up prices in high-test districts with high-income populations (which use zoning to keep out low income families, limit supply, and so forth). People are not shopping for "good schools" as much as they are shopping for schools with similarly affluent populations. Our fractured municipal system and neighborhood politics ensure that these schools get the most resources as well. This bidding-up process also ensures that these schools are safer, and so the perception that these schools are better in fact leads to better outcomes for students regardless of the educational practices (that may not be replicable in low-income communities).

    This might broadly support the "school choice" idea, but the evidence from say Detroit suggests that "school choice" policies do not necessarily lead to actually more choice. #2 can still be accurate regarding people's ability to shop for actually high quality schools.

    Just a thought. I think it is possible to be concerned about "school choice" policies without holding contradictory ideas.

    1. Thanks for the input, BK. Great points, and your last sentence is true. I'm probably being a bit unfair.

      And, I mentioned this post to my wife, and she said she didn't think point 2 was that widely stated. I was surprised that she said that, because the trigger for making this post was hearing that argument made to nodding heads, and I think this idea is common regarding education, healthcare, etc. Services need to be dispensed publicly because people don't have the tools to choose for themselves.

      These are complex topics with many pros and cons. My point here was intended to really be a simple one. That even in many areas where services are publicly dispensed, we actually do "shop" for those services.

      For instance, I commonly hear this information asymmetry argument as a reason to move away from market-based solutions in health care, and that seems to make sense from a 30,000 ft. viewpoint, but I expect that everyone who argues that takes for granted that they will choose their primary care doctor, for instance, as opposed to being assigned one randomly that they are stuck with.

      I agree with you regarding the difficulty of choosing and the causal density of what makes a school look good. It just doesn't do much to distinguish between private & public dispensation. And it is interesting to me how often people say these things without noticing that they are taking for granted the amount of choices they make in either regime.

      Thanks for the input. Glad to have you as a reader. And don't be a stranger!

  2. but I expect that everyone who argues that takes for granted that they will choose their primary care doctor
    Yeah, because choosing your doctor from a website is exactly the same as choosing to get cured of cancer or whatever without being bankrupted, which your doctor has basically nothing to do with. Interesting that you had to state 'primary care doctor' as well, because you certainly aren't choosing your doctor in an emergency situation.

    Let's test in the other direction: Have you found anyone willing to change doctors because they are allowed to 'choose' the nursing staff as well? Would that be a value add if 'choosing a doctor' is a value add?

    1. What? I know several people who have needed oncologists, and I assure you that they all put a lot of thought into which oncologist they chose. Those decisions were imperfect. They might have been poor choices. But, believe me, their choices were highly personal and important, and if they had been treated as if their personal decision was useless or unimportant they would have been extremely pissed off.