The new school choice debate (a child is more than just a test score)

Since Donald Trump has picked Betsy DeVos to be education secretary, many commentators have been pulling out their anti-school choice arguments from the closet, and for the most part it isn’t a pretty sight.  To insist on a single government-run school and trash school choice, while out of the other side of one’s mouth criticizing Trump for “authoritarianism,” and other times proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” is from my point of view a pretty poor mix.

To be sure, we’re still not sure how well vouchers work, and I would suggest continuing experimentation rather than full-on commitment.  Frankly, I find a lot of the voucher advocates unconvincing, but let’s not forget the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact about vouchers: they improve parent satisfaction.

That result is not much contested.  For instance:

Universally, school choice parents are highly satisfied with choice schools, reporting greater discipline, more responsive staff and better educational environments than the public schools they left. That parents are satisfied with their choice schools is a valuable indicator that school choice delivers real benefits. As University of Wisconsin professor John Witte, the official evaluator of the Milwaukee choice program, recently commented on school choice research: “There’s one very consistent finding: Parental involvement is very positive, and parental satisfaction is very positive…parents are happier. The people using vouchers are mostly black and Hispanic and very poor…they deserve the same kind of options that middle-class white people have.”

Patrick J. Wolf’s survey of twelve voucher programs (pdf) supports this interpretation.  And here are strongly positive results on parental satisfaction Indiana.  I could go on, but I don’t think there is much need.

Of course parents may like school choice for reasons other than test scores.  To draw from the first link above, parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice.

Perhaps now is the time to remind you that how the buyers like the product is the fundamental standard used by economists for judging public policy?  That is not to say it is the final standard all things considered, but surely economists should at least start here and report positive parental satisfaction as a major feature of school choice programs.  In fact, I’ll say this: if you’re reading a critique of vouchers and the critic isn’t willing to tell you up front that parents typically like this form of school choice, I suspect the critic isn’t really trying to inform you.

To be sure, you still might not favor school vouchers.  You might think they cost too much, you might think they will politicize private schools too much, or you might think they weaken national unity too much, to cite a few possibilities.  (Although please, on that latter matter you can’t just say something silly like “public schools and the army made America what it is today.”  You need some actual evidence.  Won’t parents who are happy with the schooling of their children also contribute to national unity and push us away from polarization?  That effect might outweigh whatever more negative mechanism you have in mind.  Evidence please, not just sentiment.)

And as for test scores, the evidence there is still unclear.  Here are a few earlier MR posts, no cherry- or lemon-picking, please.

Scott Alexander has some excellent comments on vouchers and school choice.


Comments for this post are closed