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October 30, 2007

markets, schools, and hypocrisy

This afternoon, I'm off to Paris for a few days of meetings, about which I hope to blog (if the rules of the conference permit disclosure). I won't be online again until Monday. Meanwhile, a thought about vouchers:

I found Megan McArdle's argument for school vouchers via what appeared to be a very strong endorsement on Kevin Drum's liberal blog. It turns out that Drum didn't mean to endorse McArdle's essay, but it is still worth attention. She analogizes education to iPods, asserting that if everyone had the ability to choose schools--as the rich do today--then many excellent institutions would spring up to fill the demand. It is hypocritical, she says, to exercise school choice by putting your own kids in a private school or by moving to a suburb, while opposing vouchers that would offer the same opportunity to poor families.

I am open to vouchers, in principle, and I favor more experimentation. As a parent of a DC Public School student and a spouse of a DC Public School teacher, I can vouch for the negative part of the argument: some big urban school systems are dysfunctional, and we ought to consider radical alternatives.

However, the analogy to iPods isn't satisfactory. The market for electronic goods is a classic one. Apple wants to sell as many iPods as it can, and customers want the best devices at the lowest cost. There are powerful incentives for quality and innovation. The situation is different for prestigious private schools. Parents choose to apply to these institutions, but the schools select their students. In other words, "choice" is exercised by the schools, at least as much as by the parents--which is not the case in the market for electronic goods.

The motives are different, too. Fancy schools don't want to maximize the number of customers; if anything, they want to be able to admit the smallest possible percentage of applicants. Selectivity means prestige. Besides, kids actually benefit from being in highly selective company, surrounded by other students who are above grade level, very well behaved, and raised in wealthy, highly-educated homes.

Based on close observation, I do not believe that private schools add more value than public schools do--at least, not on average. The "product" isn't any better. Instead, kids benefit from being enrolled with other privileged kids. If more parents had the opportunity to pay for private schools, new institutions would spring up. But the ones at the top of the pecking order would certainly not admit children who had discipline problems or academic "issues." On the contrary, they would continue to skim the top 5% of applicants.

Thus I don't think it's hypocritical to send your own child to a highly selective private school while opposing vouchers. You're not benefiting from a good that would be available to others if only the government provided vouchers. You're benefiting from a good that exists because private schools are allowed to select their student bodies, and your kid has value in the market. This may be morally problematic, but the problem isn't hypocrisy. Nor can the problem easily be solved by law, because private schools are associations that have (in my opinion) a constitutional right to select their own members.

October 30, 2007 8:10 AM | category: education policy | Comments


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