Whether or not to Choose School Choice

From time to time I find it useful to point out other areas where people believe things with absolutely no evidence and don’t think through the implications of the philosophy they are spouting.

This morning I heard an example of this on Wisconsin Public Radio.  An obviously angry young man called into a show where they were discussing the budget proposals of Scott Walker.  The angry young man was actually in favor of the governor’s proposals.  He seemed to be angry that anyone would oppose those ideas, but that is beside the point.  Something he said really caught my ear.

He said, “We should defund public education (including colleges).  Why shouldn’t poor black kids in MIlwaukee have the same choices (in schools) that rich white people have?

Which, ironically expresses the purpose of publicly funded education in the first place:  why should only rich people who can afford it be the only ones able to educate their kids?  So, he is actually expressing a very liberal idea, which I doubt that he is aware of.   But even as he expresses that liberal philosophy, he seems woefully unaware of history and human behavior.  So, lets look at the issue from the area of education where we do have school choice — higher education.

There is a very real question as to whether those schools were actually “better” than other schools.  You can sum this up by asking yourself whether Harvard is really a better school than say, UW Madison. Or do they just start with better students by being very selective in their admissions?  Or put another way, let’s imagine there was actually a way to absolutely measure “educatedness.”  We might find that both Harvard and UW raised the “educatedness” of their students by 100 points over four years, but that Harvard students started with an average of 150 “educatedness” points versus 100 as a starting point for UW.  In this scenario, all of the difference in output is due to input.

Unfortunately we have no absolute test of “educatedness.”  So why do people go to Harvard?  Certainly some people perceive that they will get “more” education there, in fact they must expect WAY more education considering the cost.  But many more people will want a Harvard degree because it is relatively rare and they have convinced people (rightly or wrongly) that graduates are more educated.  Of course this is often a self fulfilling prophecy.  Rich, powerful people send their kids to Harvard, and not surprisingly they go on to become the next generation of the rich and powerful.

At the college level, financial aid takes the place of school vouchers that are proposed to move kids out of public education into private education.  At the college level schools are allowed to maintain their “academic standards” while still taking government money because college education is still not viewed as a universal right.  So Harvard can find academically talented students who are not members of the rich and powerful class and they can attend with scholarships.  This does not dilute the “value” of a Harvard education too much and the rich and powerful don’t mind much.  This assumes that the real educational value that Harvard adds is not all that much, input equals output.

Now, lets assume for a moment that Harvard really has discovered educational methods that actually increase “educatedness” more than anyone else.  If this were true we might want to send the best and the brightest there to make them even better and brighter, but it also could be argued they should take everyone because they are most qualified to educate people and those lower down would benefit most from this wonderful education.  But how are the rich and powerful going to feel about “everyone” being able to attend “their” school?

Now let’s go back to the world of universal education.  It is true that we have no absolute measure of “educatedness” but still there is no evidence that I know of that private schools have any “magic bullet” that makes kids smarter.  So why do parents pay to send their kids there?  Most, almost certainly, are paying to include religion into their child’s education.   Of course they perceive that the school they chose provides a better education, otherwise why pay for it?  But they have no real evidence that it does.

Private schools often look better only because (like Harvard) they can be selective up front.  If you keep your input high, your output will be high.  So their students graduate with higher test scores — but they also came in with higher test scores too, it is not clear they provide any benefit over the public schools.

Discipline in private schools is also perceived as  “better.”  Probably not because religion makes real difference, but rather they can get rid of kids they don’t want.  In the same way parental involvement is better, if for no other reason than parents are paying tuition and want to get their money’s worth.

What the private schools want is to be able to keep their “academic standards” high, that is to say only take students who are already scoring well on tests and also to take public money.  Like Harvard, they get a new revenue stream without diluting the product.  To be fair, not all private educators see it that way, but many do.

What they don’t want is for parents to have an absolutely free choice.  They do NOT want to take all comers, like the public schools have to.  First of all this would expose them as being no different from public schools.  Which they likely aren’t.  For example, while there are certainly dedicated teachers in religious schools, they went to the same teachers’ colleges as their colleagues in public schools.  Also, I know a number of teachers who could not find work in the public school system, so teach (for about half the salary) in private schools.  How does this provide a higher quality education than public schools?

I would also say that making private schools take all comers will have an interesting effect.  It is very apparent that some parents, at least, have put their kids in private schools to keep their kids from the “riff-raff” of the public schools.  Whether they are looking at behaviors or skin colors, I don’t know.  But I don’t think it is coincidence that as schools have more minorities, more people move to private schools.

So, what would happen if the poor black kids of Milwaukee really could go to the private academies of the suburbs?  It doesn’t take a deep understanding of American history to know it probably will not turn out well.  I presume the academies would move even further from the city and raise their tuitions even higher.

Another analogy we could make is to the healthcare system.  There we have a “free market” and hospitals are shouting all the time that they are the best.  But are they?  In most places no one collects unbiased outcome data from hospitals.  “Better” and “worse” are a product of marketing and which neighborhood the hospital is located in.  Pretty much the same with our schools.

School vouchers are a political shell game designed to lower confidence in public schools and finish off the teachers’ unions in those schools.  Ironically if they actually worked and moved large numbers of poor minority students into private schools, as the caller suggested, it would more likely destroy the private school system as we now know it.

Be careful what you wish for.

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