Or maybe we just have the wrong definition of success

Megan McArdle, in Bloomberg, writes: We Libertarians Were Really Wrong About School Vouchers.

Neal McCluskey wrote a good counter to that on Cato with many valid points (HT: Cafe Hayek).

Scott Sumner also responded to McArdle’s article and said similar things to what I said last year. He writes:

We don’t evaluate the quality of a Tesla by how fast it goes from zero to 60, we use the market test—do consumers want this car? Education is no different; the way to judge school quality is not test scores, it’s consumer demand.


Let’s expand on this.

Neal McCluskey refers to George Clowes of the Heartland Institute, who identifies several facets of the market that vouchers lack.

A key missing facet is this:

Lack of freedom of educators to establish different types of schools.

In cases where vouchers or charters are allowed, the model is still defined to be something very close to a public school.

Imagine if restaurants were run like schools. At the restaurant, your meal is free. But, it’s paid for by your property tax, state and Federal taxes on the back end.

That means the local board, state and Federal bureaucrats (with no skin in the game) have a say in how to run your local restaurants.

The local board may want to try something different than the next town, but they don’t want to miss out on the state and Fed funds, so they go along with the “experts” and bureaucrats from these bodies.

It just so happens that the experts love Denny’s, so they deem all restaurants to be Denny’s. There’s nothing wrong with Denny’s. It’s a decent restaurant. It serves food all day, has a reasonable variety of menu items and doesn’t make a lot of people sick.

Some groups might emerge and say, we think that some restaurants should be privately run because it’s better to have choice.

The bureaucrats begrudgingly go along with the idea, BUT insist that any restaurant a private party opens must be like Denny’s, otherwise they will withhold their funds.

Things don’t change much and years later folks like Megan McArdle write about how wrong we were about restaurant choice because the privately-run Denny’s aren’t much different than the government-run Denny’s.

But, if all restaurants were restricted to be Denny’s, we would could not imagine what we are missing.

We wouldn’t have McDonald’s, Chipotle, Smashburger, Starbucks, Olive Garden or the local gems and dives that we love to frequent.

Even if you measure our existing wide variety of restaurants on standard scales, you will likely miss the differences that are truly relevant to customers.

Consider some standard measures that might be used to compare restaurants:

  • Wait time
  • Customer satisfaction
  • How good the food tastes
  • Percentage of people who get sick

You might find that the scores on such measures don’t differ much for Starbucks among Starbucks faithful and Denny’s among Denny’s faithful.

You might then dangerously conclude that there’s no need for both, because the scores on standard measures aren’t much different.

Reality is different. Try taking Starbucks away and telling those customers they now have to go to Denny’s. You will have lots of unhappy campers.

What’s wrong? The standard measures miss the differences between Starbucks and Denny’s that are truly relevant to people, because those differences are subtle, subjective and often not even clearly understood by the customers — until their preferred option disappears.

Which gets us back to Sumner’s point and my point way back in 2009 — consumer demand is the best judge of school quality.

One final point: Something that most folks who opine on school choice miss is that there already is a good deal of choice — they just don’t recognize it. I wrote about that here.

That’s another reason why it shouldn’t be surprising why adding a minor choice to a landscape that already has some level of choice doesn’t produce far different results.

It’s like adding a 7th flavor to an ice cream shop that serves 6 flavors and expecting that 7th flavor to do wonderful things for the business, then being disappointed when it doesn’t change things much.


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