Commentary: The School Choice Movement’s Greatest Failure

Published September 1, 2006

Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times jumped on the July 15 release of a new study by the National Center for Education Statistics. The WSJ‘s headline was particularly dramatic: “Long-Delayed Education Study Casts Doubt on Value of Vouchers.”

No, it doesn’t.

And it is a failure on my part, as well as a failure of the school choice movement as a whole, that the media don’t understand why.

Taking the study entirely at face value, what it says is this: Private school students consistently score better in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than public school students, but their advantage essentially goes away if you apply a particular set of controls for the differing student characteristics between the two sectors (things such as wealth, race, etc.).

Okay, you say, but if private schools don’t significantly outscore public schools, what’s the point of school voucher programs or other reforms that would give all parents access to the public or private school of their choice? Why, in other words, is the Journal‘s headline wrong?

Defining Markets

It is wrong because the point of voucher programs is to create a competitive education industry, and the existing population of U.S. private schools does not constitute such an industry.

A vigorous, free market in education requires that all families have easy access to the schools of their choice (whether public or private); that schools are not burdened with extensive regulations on what they can teach, whom they can hire, what they can charge, etc.; that consumers directly pay at least some of the cost of the service; that private schools not be discriminated against financially by the state in the distribution of education funding; and that at least a substantial minority of private schools be operated for profit.

This set of conditions does not exist in any state in the nation. Instead, American education is dominated by a 90 percent government monopoly that is funded entirely through taxation. The private sector occupies the remaining 10 percent niche, is almost exclusively operated on a nonprofit basis, and is forced to charge thousands of dollars in tuition in the face of the “free” monopoly schools that spend an average of $10,000 per pupil per year.

This is not a market, and no study was necessary to point this out.

Playing Monopoly

Competitive markets are characterized by innovation, inexorable improvements in cost effectiveness and the quality of goods and services, and the rapid growth of the most successful providers. None of this has occurred in the U.S. private education sector, precisely because that sector does not constitute a competitive market.

The last great innovation to transform classroom instruction occurred during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (the invention of the chalkboard, around 1801). Since that time, the pace of innovation has been so slow that a student from the mid 1800s would immediately recognize a modern classroom setting. The most sought-after private schools enroll only about a thousand more students today than they did a century ago.

This degree of stagnation is unheard of outside of the education sector, because it is only there (at least in liberal democracies) that market activity has been so thoroughly extinguished by government monopoly provision.

Hence, the NCES study of our current small, non-market niche of private schools does not allow any generalization to the sort of outcomes to be expected from a truly free market in education–and the creation of such a market is the primary justification for voucher and other school choice policies. That justification extends well beyond academic and cost-effectiveness benefits.

A free market in education allows all families to obtain the sort of education they want for their own children without having to foist their preferences on their neighbors. That, in turn, eliminates the endless cultural conflict that accompanies one-size-fits-all, state-run systems (think school prayer, book selection and censorship, the teaching of human origins, etc.).

If I were better at my job, and if the school choice movement as a whole had a more effective media machine, this fact would be widely understood, and we wouldn’t see fallacious headlines like the one cited above.

Andrew Coulson ([email protected]) directs the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.