There’s a strain of thought in the school choice movement that market forces alone won’t be enough to improve public education.
Harvard University economist Joshua Goodman recently explained how he came to this view.
Competition improves supermarkets, restaurants — why shouldn’t this model apply to schools? It seemed to me that anyone who denied this idea didn’t understand basic economics.
But the more I read, the more I realized that the empirical evidence for choice and market forces improving educational outcomes is thin at best. I found that disappointing and also puzzling, and I have spent some time thinking about why that theory doesn’t match current reality.
Here’s what I think the biggest problem in thinking of schools as a classical market. Econ 101 models assume consumers observe product quality. But schools are complicated goods, and quality, particularly a school’s long-run quality, is hard to judge for many parents. It takes a lot of time to figure out whether this school and these teachers are serving my child well. Unlike restaurants or supermarkets, where quality can be judged at the moment of the purchase, school quality reveals itself later.
In other words, sometimes, parents don’t know best, at least when it comes to judging school quality.
This week, at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual gathering in Washington, Checker Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argued this point from experience.
“I’ve seen way too many charter schools full of kids, with happy parents, in which the student achievement results are in the tank,” he said. Continue Reading →