Incentives matter, even in education

A Facebook friend shared a link to this “letter” to the President from Patrick J. Kearney regarding Patrick’s disapproval for school choice.

In this post from 2011, I explained why I think those against school choice usually don’t realize that they are against giving poor families the same educational freedom that middle and upper income families already have.

I agree with Patrick that there are good quality public schools in our country. I believe they are good because they tend to serve middle and upper income families that are better able to afford education choices. So, they have to stay good so enough families choose them over their other options.

When I was young, my parents made this choice by moving my family from a school district they felt was not putting education first to one that was. They could have tried to change things by voting for different school board members and speaking up at school board meetings, but they inherently knew their power of exit was much stronger for their (and my) immediate needs than their power of voice.

Looking back, I agree and am thankful for the choice they made and I’m thankful they had the power to make that choice.

So while there are good public schools, there are bad public schools, too. And, they aren’t bad because of under funding (most poor performing districts spend the same or more per student than the best schools) or for lack of people who want to do the right thing (there are plenty, but they’re power of voice is muted by vested interests).

They’re bad because of the incentive structure. As Terry Moe explained in a recent EconTalk podcast on the rebuilding of the New Orleans School District after Hurricane Katrina: “Vested interests are universal.” And these vested interests “will invest in political power to resist reform when the institutions they benefit from are performing very badly.”

School choice gives more families the freedom to exercise their power of exit to circumvent these vested interests.

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