Monday, June 15, 2009

More on Schooling

Art Carden and I have an op-ed in The Tennessean that was originally based on this blog post. It changed quite a bit, in large part because of space constraints (550 words or less), and also because Art's take on the subject is slightly different--perhaps only in style--from mine. Art's focus is more on getting government out of education completely. The original blog entry focused primarily on vouchers, and on the lack of a compelling argument for having schools operated by the government. I'd like to use this entry to add nuance to the arguments in the newspaper op-ed.

To reiterate the initial thrust of both pieces, there is little reason to think that having the mayor run the schools will result in an improvement in the quality of education. This is not because the mayor is evil or stupid or anything nefarious; it is simply because he is trying to solve a very difficult central planning problem, while facing pressures from various lobbies. Just as when production of cars or food is centralized, the result of centralizing education tends to be a one-size-fits-all, bureaucratic, poorly-run mess. There simply aren't incentives in place that would encourage or even allow the mayor to find the right ways to run a school system. Competition, on the other hand, should help with this problem. We don't need to find the "right way" to build a car; we let many companies build cars, and let consumers decide which ones are right. Firms compete over consumers' dollars, and in so doing try to find new and better ways to make those consumers happy.

Markets are not perfect, but perfection should not be enemy of the good. We're simply not likely to get persistent improvement in schools so long as schools are in the hands of a government-enforced monopoly. The piece in The Tennessean contains the following:
When markets are left alone, people are usually compelled by competition to serve one another in spite of our natural disinclination to do so...
This is simply Adam Smith's invisible hand argument. The idea is that individual self-interest can lead to cooperation and service of others, even if that is not one's intent.

The word "usually" is in there for good reason. There are particular ways that markets can go wrong--negative externalities, such as pollution, or public goods that might be underprovided by the market, such as national defense, as well as other "market failures" that I won't go into here. There may very well be positive externalities from education. That is, there may be external benefits from having everyone able to read--you benefit from being in a society in which I can read, but I don't take that into account when I decide whether or not to learn to read. As a result I may underinvest in education. It seems to be the case, according to Kerry King, that even if these external benefits exist, people would choose to buy enough education to create them anyway. That is, those very basic skills that make for a better society--literacy and numeracy--are likely to be almost universally obtained out of self-interest.

Even if King is wrong, however--even if people, left to their own choices, would not choose enough education--that is not an argument for schools run by the government. It is an argument for subsidizing privately run schools. That is what vouchers do--they are a government payment that can only be used to purchase schooling (the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants were really vouchers for higher education). These vouchers could be restricted by income, although I see little reason to do so. The D.C. voucher program was targeted at low-income families. The result was that a lot of poor, mostly black families were able to send their children to schools of their choice, rather than being locked into their local monopoly. Right now, only the wealthy have that option, since only they can afford to move based on school district quality, or to send their children to private schools.

A concerned neighbor commented via email on my original blog entry, suggesting that the result of vouchers might be that people end up sending their children only to schools with people who are just like them. I agree that this is possible; bigots might choose to keep their children out of schools with black students, for example, or Christians might not want their children associating with heathens. I have several responses to this, however:

1) I don't think this would happen today to the same extent that it would have, say, thirty years ago. It would surely still happen, though.
2) The wealthy already have this option. We currently have a system that allows the wealthy to be bigots, but does not allow the poor to be bigots. The only way to prevent this is to make it illegal for parents to send their children to private schools, make it illegal to home school them, and to somehow prevent them from taking advantage of majority-white school districts, perhaps with busing.
3) I see this kind of voluntary bigotry as offensive, but I think it should not be equated with the government mandated segregation of the past. That is, it is one thing for people to choose to send their children to schools with a particular makeup. It is another thing for the government to force black children to go to black schools. Rememember the children in D.C.: They were poor and mostly black, and they were able to choose to go to private religious and secular schools of varying racial makeups. If it came down to it, I would prefer a voucher system targeted at poor families to no voucher system at all.
4) I would prefer to have students--particularly poor students currently worst served by the system--getting high quality education on a competitive market, even if that leads to some self-segregation, to having students forced into more diverse schools that provide poor education. I admit that this is a value judgement.

A related argument was that some schools might try to keep out black or poor students, perhaps by raising tuition above the amount of the voucher. This is possible, but I think it is unlikely unless parents have a very strong preference for bigotry or classism. Schools do not want to turn down money; I do not think they will turn away the students that go with the money. It is possible that some schools will offer some sort of very expensive education, and may therefore charge tuition that exceeds the amount of the voucher but that would be because of higher costs, not because of racism. Again, I am not saying that such bigoted influence on tuition is impossible; merely that it is unlikely. I am not familiar with such a thing happening with past voucher experiments. If anyone has evidence on the subject, please pass it along.

Finally, the article says that I am a "free-spirited economist"; that was intended to be a humorous euphemism for "unemployed economist". I am currently looking for teaching work in Nashville. I was curious to see if The Tennesseean would keep that in there, and surprised to find that they did.

I have always wondered why op-eds seem so simplistic and one-sided. Now I know: space constraints. Unfortunately, the freedom afforded by a blog probably causes me to go too far in the verbose direction.