An Ignorant Screed on School Choice

by on February 21, 2007 · 12 comments

I’m sure Leander Kahney of Wired makes a lot of sense when he’s talking about music and copyright protection, but when the topic is schools, he seems completely clueless:

Jobs has also been a longtime advocate of a school voucher system, another ridiculous idea based on the misplaced faith that the mythical free market will fix schools by giving parents choice.

Jobs argues that vouchers will allow parents, the “customers,” to decide where to send their kids to school, and the free market will sort it out. Competition will spur innovation, improve quality and drive bad schools (and bad teachers) out of business. The best schools will thrive.

It sounds great–for the successful schools. But what about the failing ones?

Jobs thinks even the low end of the market will be hotly contested, like the market for inexpensive cars. Not everyone can drive a Mercedes, but there’s lots of competition for cheap Toyotas, Kias and Saturns.

But Jobs is using the wrong analogy. It’d be more like the market for the low-end food dollar–rich kids would have lots of choice, but for poor kids it’d be Burger King or McDonald’s. For the system as a whole, vouchers are untenable.

Here’s the thing: vouchers for food isn’t a hypothetical situation. They actually exist! They’re called “food stamps.” And as far as I know, most food stamp recipients do not spend them at Burger King or McDonalds. They spend them at places called “grocery stores” which are, in fact, considerably cheaper, on a per-meal basis, than eating at McDonalds.

For that matter, school choice isn’t a hypothetical either. Milwaukee has had vouchers for more than a decade, and the program is popular among Milwaukee parents. I had the opportunity to tour a couple of voucher schools last fall, and I was quite impressed. One of the schools, opened three years ago as a result of the expansion of vouchers, was a Lutheran high school. Nearly 100 percent of the students were black kids from poor neighborhoods. The school had longer-than-usual hours and an incredibly dedicated staff; they worked long hours and gave kids their cell phone numbers so they’d never have an excuse not to do their homework. Obviously, I can’t tell if a school will succeed from a 1-hour tour, but it certainly wasn’t a “McSchool.” If there are educational entrepreneurs willing and able to create such schools, how can anyone object to that? It’s not like kids trapped in failing urban schools have anything to lose.

In his conclusion, Kahney chalks up our poor educational performance to “enormous economic inequality and the total absence of social safety nets.” I wonder if it’s occurred to Kahney that one of the major contributors to economic inequality is our quasi-feudal education system, in which access to a good school is tied to your parents’ ability to purchase a home in a good school district (or to afford tuition at a private school)? The whole point of school choice is to give low-income parents the same opportunities that wealthier parents now enjoy–to send their children to the school that works best for their own child. If Mr. Kahney is concerned about inequality, supporting school choice should be a no-brainer.

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