Oh, yes, it is time for that again.
Alex thought that Brad DeLong and I should be cheerier over the prospects for vouchers. My previous post had cited a study of vouchers in Chile, showing no real educational improvement over twenty years.
Like Alex, I am willing to give vouchers a try, but I think he is overselling the idea. Why I am not convinced by Alex’s pep talk?
First, Alex cites a study of Colombian vouchers, which showed improvement from a voucher program. Point granted, but I think that correct conclusion is simply that sometimes vouchers improve schooling, sometimes they don’t. The most convincing Chilean evidence, not cited by Alex, is simply that overall educational performance, on the international scale, did not improve after twenty years of vouchers.
Second, Alex argues that Chile did not have a pure vouchers scheme. Again, point granted, but no implementable vouchers scheme will be pure, let us take this for granted. Have you read about the Washington D.C. voucher proposals, which would force private schools to admit a certain percentage of “voucher students” by lot? Not surprisingly, the good private schools don’t want to participate in the program, if it passes.
Alex overestimates how far the Chilean system deviates from a pure voucher model. True, the Chilean system makes the payment to the private school, rather than to the family. But according to most theories of tax incidence, this should not matter. The private school will lower tuition accordingly, hoping to capture more students, and thus a greater payment from the government.
Overall, what is going on? Education is not just another commodity. Some of it is signaling, in which case subsidizing it doesn’t bring great gains. Another big part of education is selecting peers for our child. A school filled with bad kids is a bad school, whether it is private or public. It is not obvious how much a private school can make bad kids good. As experience in Eastern Europe and around the world shows, certain kinds of education may be a prerequisite for well-functioning markets, the right values don’t follow from markets automatically.
Most generally, educational performance varies with many factors, not all of them depending on the scope of the market. There are, in fact, very many good public schools, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Now Chile is a relatively homogeneous and urbanized country, with 13 million plus inhabitants. The country also has a reputation for discipline, order, and strong family structure. Is it plausible to think that such a region can have reasonably good public schools, so good that vouchers won’t elevate their youth to another level? Yes.
Vouchers would give U.S. urban youths another educational chance, but let us not expect too much from this reform.