Making school choice work

Here is a new policy paper by Caroline Hoxby, written for a New Zealand context.  It is an admirable brief summary of the U.S. evidence on school choice, almost like a response to Ezra Klein.  Here is a summary.  Her conclusions are that successful school choice requires:

  • Supply flexibility, which means that schools should have the ability to open where there is demand for them, expand with increased demand and contract with reduced demand
  • Money should follow students, which means that funding policies must be designed so that schools that are in demand have the funds to expand and those that are not in demand lose funds and must contract; and
  • Independent management of schools, which means that schools must be free to innovate in a range of areas, including pedagogy, teacher pay, budget allocation, and the way the school is organised.

Hoxby stresses that these conditions are rarely found together.  By the way, the paper does not cover either Chilean or Colombian experience with vouchers.


From many years watching over my children in DC and Fairfax county public schools as well as private schools, I have formed a rule of thumb on schools. The more the bureaucracy (supervisors, school boards, city councils, state legislators, congress, and presidents) intrudes into the classroom, the worse the teaching. Charter schools would minimize bureaucracy to save money, and they would put pressure on the public schools to let teachers serve the need of the students instead of the bureaucracy. The downside to school competition is it produces the sorting of students by parents and students motivation, and, probably the students ability. In school systems where parents are knowledgeable and self confidant enough to pressure the schools I doubt that competition would have as much of a positive effect, and the sorting effect might produce an over all negative for the school system as a whole. In the Colombian case, where the program was not restriced to the poor, there was also sorting by income it is not surprising that it did not result in overall improvement.

Hoxby has done outstanding empirical research on school systems
and choice for years and I wonder why it doesn't get more attention from
the press or even academia.

From Ezra:

>I'm always impressed by the faith libertarians, and some contrarian liberals, put into education markets. They speak of them in the rapturous tones of Bill Kriston contemplating slaughter, or me talking universal health care. But none of the evidence I've seen on charter school outcomes has been very convincing. My understanding is that while they've not cream-skimmed, taking only the rich and white as some Democrats feared, they've failed to improve outcomes among their students. Nor have they been found to improve the performance of surrounding public schools -- a RAND study (pdf) said there was "no measurable impact" and "no evidence that charter schools create a competitive environment." But surely the libertarians have seen these studies too, and I've spent very little time studying education policy. So please, someone, show me what I'm missing, or have to read, or where the compelling evidence lies.

How is that new report in any way a response to the charge that "while they've not cream-skimmed, taking only the rich and white as some Democrats feared, they've failed to improve outcomes among their students"?

One issue I've not seen raised by opponents is risk. It seems to me as a non-economist that one part of school choice is the acceptance of more risk. Just by the odds, some (most?)new charter schools will do better than existing schools; some will do worse. A parent making a choice has to weigh the possible gains (child spends a year learning more than she would have in her public school) against the possible losses (child spends an unproductive year in a very bad school).

The problem with school choice is a lack of solid consumer information for making informed choices.

The most important mechanism for making school choice work would be mandatory value-added testing: test all students each school year to see how much smarter and better-informed they've become, relative to themselves.

I agree with Andromeda. I like the idea of choice because I don't think that the one size fits all produces the best educational outcomes. When I looked for the "best schools" for my children I did not always use the same schools for them because they had different interest and needs. Test scores as long as they were acceptable were not the deciding factor. The one thing I always looked for was flexiblity which is where public schools are most deficient.

I am against vouchers. It is the new busing. If any of this stuff passes (and when people find out is the new busing, it won't), watch for a lot more kids to be yanked out of the public schools and home-schooled, and for more private schools which won't participate in the plan.

Wonderful example of what is wrong with our public schools.

LAKEWOOD, Colo. -- A Jefferson County geography teacher was placed on paid administrative on the second day of school for hanging several flags from other countries in his classroom.......
for insubordination, citing a Colorado law that makes it illegal to display foreign flags permanently in schools.

Neil, it was not Chile's school system that was racked by massive protests, it was Chile's public (non-voucher) school system that was racked by massive protests.

Besides the fact that the protest movement was to a large degree manipulated for political motives (it's only been a few months and most of the student leaders from the movement are now making conspicous appearances as the latest figures for the major political parties), the three main objectives of the movement were to get a "free rider card" for the public transportation system (it's currently subsidized for students), free entrance exam into the university system (it's a standard test, so you have to take to get into an university), and an overall improvement in the quality of education received in the public (non-voucher) system. Improving quality was not even the main objective.

In regards to the "voucher" system, it's not really a voucher system, it's a susbsidized private schooling system. Each private school can choose wether to receive the subsidy (it's per-student and it amounts to something like $500 per year if I recall correctly) for all it's students or not at all. That means you don't get to choose any school you want, though most private schools do accept the subsidy.

If you want to know what customers (parents) think of this system, well, when it started in 1982 subsidized schools were attended by less than 20% of all students. Now they are attended by more than 40% of all students (public schooling takes a 50% and private-non-subsidized schools around 10% of all students).

Does that seem like a failure to you?

What you are describing is the sorting effect. Initially 80% are satisfied with their school. When the 20% of the most motivated students leave, some of those that were previously satisfied become disatisfied and they leave etc. This is what the opponents of choice worry about.

Speaking from that "New Zealand context": she misses a prerequisite.

You also need efficient transport between possible school sites. "School choice" requires it: else you will have too few providers for a given consumer to choose from and "the market" is inefficient.

That, in turn, means that you require population density. Else you lack school choice.

May I remind you (again) that she's writing for a New Zealand audience.

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