Suppose the mythical state of Arkansota adopts a law providing a subsidy sufficient to support school choice for all families. Accordingly, a voucher appears one morning in Loretta’s mailbox. The amount is enough to pay her son Bill’s tuition at any of the schools she might choose. She and Bill’s dad are thrilled. They have long wanted school choice. Though they lack detailed knowledge, they believe schools differ from one another in ways that really matter. And they are eager to become informed consumers.
The pollsters tell us Loretta’s opinion is typical. Virtually all parents worry first of all about two qualities that do in fact vary among schools. Safety is one; the other is the school’s capacity to teach “basics” – the 3 Rs, science, and history.
Beyond these two shared concerns, parental agreement fades; mothers and fathers can worry – or be indifferent – about such things as academic prestige, social mix, neighborhood, facilities, football, faculty qualifications, music programs, and lunch. Parents tend to divide most deeply over a school’s commitment (or lack of it) to their own particular vision of the good life, especially as it is represented in religion – or its absence.
For the first time, the availability of the voucher provides the parent a practical reason to get involved and ask questions about safety, basics, and ideals of particular schools. How, then, can society best help Loretta do her shopping? The voucher itself will help; when a parent comes to the door with money, the school will – to a point – answer questions. But, there will be information that a school might wish to protect from these very same customers. (“Oh, you heard there was a little dust-up, Mrs. Jones? It was really nothing.”) Moreover, systematically providing information can entail economic cost for the school. In short, there can be reasons to stay silent.
The foremost issue, then, is what a school must disclose in order to participate in the system. Some questions will simply be out of bounds, at least as a legal requirement. One can imagine a parent asking whether the faculty of a Catholic school all attend Sunday mass; the school may neither know or care – or it may both know and care, but deem the question inappropriate. Nor would any state require such a disclosure for a school to participate. This hypothetical is extreme but suggestive; if there is to be subsidized choice, there will be rules governing what and how a school must disclose (or suppress) to qualify.
Rules of disclosure are nothing exotic; they are a familiar part of free market systems. Sellers of bourbon must announce its alcohol proof; certain headgears must be labeled “made in China.” Buyers of both bourbon and bonnets are thought to need such insights to exercise prudence and/or prejudice. In addition, what sellers say ought in fact be true, and some practical way is needed to spot and sanction false advertising. Otherwise, school choice becomes merely an exercise in trials and errors – and can be costly to little Bill.
So what information is to be made available, in what form, and with what enforcement to make the market work? Many years ago in Making School Choice Work, Stephen Sugarman and I proposed the following requirement regarding information: