Why School Choice Fails (?)

I’ve written before that the idea of school choice has a lot of merit, especially for those of us still under the spell of elegant philosophies behind Enlightenment economic thinkers.  I argued that across a whole system, applying principles of choice might be able to achieve change in ways more profound than well-meaning school leaders.  I did point out there is no evidence for the idea (some to the contrary, in fact), and it is quite unpopular in academic circles.A new salvo in the war emerged recently.  Natalie Hopkinson, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, created some controversy this winter when she declared, more or less, the US experiment with school choice and charter schools a failure.

She tells of a system where “neighbourhood schools are dying” because of school choice and charter schools.  The problem? Washington, D.C., like many cities in the US, in an effort to improve its school system, created choice-based incentives for schools to improve: “if a school was deemed failing, students could transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school.”  Schools would be accountable to their stakeholders, and in so doing a “second education system” was created.

But a cycle emerges: local neighbourhood school, not doing so well, loses more and more students to the competition; eventually, stripped of resources, it is shut down and the kids move to a nearby public school that is not doing so well; soon, it is shut down, too.  Each wave of the cycle brings greater cynicism and disillusionment with the public system.  The second, shadow education system consumes resources that once went to local neighbourhood schools.

All of this leads to a few avenues: rich neighbourhoods have great schools with great programs; poor nieghbourhoods have poor schools with weak programs, and ultimately get shut down; the kinds in poor neighbourhoods have fewer and fewer options.  (Most Canadians are surprised to find out that one of the best options is to win a lottery to attend a better school out of your neighbourhood.)  Her son attended three elementary schools by the age of 11, and all of them were closed.  Living in an under-served, mostly black neighbourhood, means you probably won’t have a local school worth wanting to send your kid to.

She looks out at the broader US experiment with school choice and declares the future grim: “Like us, those places will face a stark decision: Do they want equitable investment in community education, or do they want to hand it over to private schools and charters? Let’s stop pretending we can fairly do both. As long as we do, some will keep winning, but many of us will lose.”

She does make a compelling point.  But given the obvious criticism supplied by some of her detractors, I think she has the wrong problem in mind, and the wrong solution.  Kevin Chavous, the chairman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, writes in response: “Ms. Hopkinson points to what she deems the fundamental unfairness of the lottery aspect of the charter school law. To be sure, it’s not a perfect system, but luck and chance have always determined where one attends school. If you are lucky enough to be born to reasonably well-off parents who can write checks to private schools or buy a house in an expensive suburb, opportunity is everywhere.
“If you aren’t so fortunate, your parents grit their teeth and send you to the neighborhood school, chosen for you based on nothing but your ZIP code. If access to high-performing schools has to come down to a number, better it be a lottery number than a ZIP code.”

A good point, though there is a lot less to find agreement with in his views in this clip:

The debate over choice is far from the centre, though; the solution to all this is not to quibble over school choice, but to examine the sources of funding.  In the US the tradition has been to fund schools from local tax bases – the richer the neighbourood, the richer the schools – ad vice versa.  It was like this in Ontario, too, but (under a very conservative regime, even) the province decided to apply a provincial funding model where the school receives the same amount for each student, no matter how rich the local neighbourhood.  This kind of centralized funding is an easy way to provide for poor niehgbourhoods – and it isn’t incompatible with school choice.

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