School Choice Exists

In most debates and discussions about school choice, what is usually overlooked is that a good deal of choice already exists in education.

Choice exists at many levels in our education “market”.  Folks who have enough money can choose to pay to send their kids to private school.  Folks who have a little less dough and can’t afford, or don’t wish to pay, for private schools also exercise choice.  They have enough flexibility* to choose where they live and, by and large, choose to live in school districts that are known for quality education.

*By flexibility, I mean they can afford transportation and longer commutes to work.  They don’t have to rely as much on public transportation routes.  They can choose to live in communities with higher priced homes.

The middle market education choice drives local real estate cycles.  Suburban areas with plenty of land to develop have an incentive to provide quality schools to attract new families to develop the land and increase the tax base.

These suburban areas tend to continue to provide quality education as long as there’s land to develop.

However, once these areas run out about develop-able land, watch out.  School boards and administrators become complacent.  Why provide quality education?  The tax base is there.  If families won’t occupy the homes, maybe empty-nesters will.  Or better yet, once the tax base is funded from a good portion of businesses, who needs families?

This is based on observations in my own area.  The urban school district has been a corrupt and incompetent wreck for decades.  Why not?  It still gets funded.

Looking back 25 years, the hot suburbs of those days had the top school districts.  They used those school districts to attract middle income families from the urban core and bring new growth to the area to increase their tax base.

Now, those top-notch school districts from 25 years ago, with a few exceptions, have been surpassed by school districts in the newer suburban growth areas with develop-able land. Those 25-year-old suburbs have been nearly fully developed and the quality of their school districts are on a slow decline.  No longer are they the top notch districts.  They have less incentive to maintain that status.

So, to a certain degree, school choice already exists for wealthy and middle-income families who can choose private and to live where there are quality public schools.

Poor, urban families, on the other hand have less choice on where to send their kids to school.  They may not have the flexibility to live where they want.  They may rely more on public transportation to get them to work.  And they can’t afford private school.  It’s no surprise to me that these aren’t considered the best schools. They have little incentive to be the best. They have close to a captive audience. The parents have less choice, so the schools there have less competition to push them to keep quality high.

So, wealthy and middle income families already have some degree of choice about where to send their kids.  Poor families don’t.  I’ve won a few folks over on the idea of vouchers by simply explaining this and asking them why they are against giving more choice to poor people?

Letting people have more choice on where to send their own kids to school seems to make sense, even if you or I disapprove of their choices.

When we try to assess the quality of a charter school (or any school) based on test scores, I think we miss something.  The fact that when given a choice, a parent chose something other than traditional public schools, is enough evidence for me that something went right.

My “choice” observations are based on what I see in my metro area.  Do they line up with what you see in yours?

Incentives matter

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that public schools are charging kids and parents fees to help make up for budget shortfalls.  Various school districts are charging fees for a variety of things including registration, technology, special activities like cross-country, and even graduation.

A family featured in the article paid over $4,400 to the public schools, in addition to $2,700 in property taxes that goes to fund education.

One photo caption in the article explains that a student had to choose band over choir because of the fees.  Another student chose track over cross-country because of fees.

The mother of band member lamented:

It’s high school. You’re supposed to be able to try different things and see what you like.

I understand.  That is certainly the model of public education we grew up with.  But, that’s part of the problem.

We’ve funded education through the third-party taxpayer dollars for so long that looking at the costs now makes us uneasy.  Several generations of parents have been able to send their kids to public schools and let their kids take full advantage of what is offered without having to consider the cost we incur on taxpayers.

We’re not used to making the full economic evaluation — the price/value decision — that we make for many other goods.  We have grown accustomed to getting about $11,000 per year per child per year of education for what appears to be free (I doubt many people even know the cost per pupil of their local public schools).

That’s not a tough choice to make.  Most people will accept $11,000 of “free”* stuff (*no incremental cost to the user).  Many people will even accept it if that $11,000 worth of public schools is only worth the equivalent of $4,000 of private schools.

Free is free, right?  Few people would turn down a free car (paid for by others) that cost $30,000 to build, even if a very similar car was available for $20,000 to buy.

If other people didn’t pay for the $30,000 car, the company that builds it could not  compete with the company that makes the $20,000 car.

While I sympathize with the mother’s lament because the education model appears to be changing from an open bar to more of a cash bar, I think it’s a good thing.

It might cause parents and kids accept the full economic evaluation.  Things that provide marginal value to students might go away or go into the private market.

To parse the mother’s statement, while high school became a place to try new things over the last few decades, I’m not sure that’s the proper role for it.  High school should be a place where kids learn things.  Life is where we try new things.