The Double-Edged Sword of School Choice

  • February 9, 2024
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School Choice has become a hot button political topic, especially for right-wing America. Conservatives, libertarians, and everyone that is to the left of the Democratic Party have grown increasingly more skeptical of the public education system. Between ideological indoctrination, what might be rightfully described as “grooming” into social contagions, and declining educational gains, public education has demonstrated its utter failures.

The obvious alternative to many conservatives and libertarians is school choice. School choice has a variety of forms, but all are focused on a core idea: that government funding of schools should follow students (rather than go directly to districts) to allow competition between schools. Surely, it does follow that allowing choice might improve quality. Money will follow the students and those schools which provide the best quality service at the lowest price. This is simple enough market analysis.

However, there are problems that might arise from a school choice system. These do not boil down to such arguments (er, questions) as “school choice defunds public schools” or “how would quality be assured in these schools”? These arguments seem to fall flat in respect to refuting school choice policies. Let’s quickly address them:

If school choice programs are implemented, they will lead to many schools being shut down as people flee them

Firstly, one must question why keeping these schools open is ideal at all. Is having more schools open necessarily a good thing? Say we have 10 schools, 5 of which deliver a quality education (by whatever standard you use to describe that) and 5 that do not. Is it ideal to keep the latter group in business?

For any other business we would reject this framework. The number of businesses isn’t a specified amount by some abstract ideal. We strive for quality and lower prices in the marketplace. If its revenue exceeds its costs, then it profits and succeeds in the marketplace. If costs exceed revenue, then it operates at a loss and should go out of business. Why should it go out of business? It is an inefficient use of resources and labor. Market prices are signals of the demand and supply of goods based on individual displayed preferences.

If one does not sell their good or service for more than the costs of producing it, they have incorrectly determined the value created from making use of the resources. That business will cease to continue operating because of its losses and likely shouldn’t. It wastes resources that might be deployed to more valuable ventures.

Schools that would experience losses because of some voucher school choice systems are clearly inefficient. Their costs are greater than the value they provide to consumers. Schools provide a service, education, to consumers, the families. Inefficient businesses should not be protected, they should be allowed to fail and more efficient ones to produce.

Everyone deserves a quality education; how do we ensure that education provided by schools under voucher systems is adequate?

One must question this largely. How does one determine what is or is not a quality education? What might be considered a quality education between a doctor and an engineer is very different. It is even very different between an optometrist (eye doctor) and otolaryngologist (ear, nose, throat doctor). There is no objective standard of education except what has been universally agreed upon based on the actions of people in the past.

Someone training to be a doctor might assign a high value to a class that educates them on a specialized aspect of their field. Thus, they may be willing to pay up to a certain amount to take such a class. Other doctors might value their time educating another person on the topic less than money given up for it. From this you get an exchange of the service that is education.

Based upon the demand for these services, which will depend on the individuals wishing to enter a field, prices can be determined for these services. It becomes easier for less specialized services like a high school education. Basic mathematic skills, reading, writing, have value to all. A certain standard is maintained for other products and services on the market, much the same regarding education.

Markets trend towards higher quality at a lower price over time, because humans want higher quality things and those things at lower prices. Businesses that innovate to provide a lower price will receive higher profits. Better programs at lower costs. There is an incentive to keep prices low enough to attract new customers, meaning that higher quality products are offered to more customers.

Competition is not a problem in terms of quality or number of locations. However, there might be other issues with a voucher system of school choice.

What some progressives would consider “quality control” is merely codeword for maintaining education’s progressive inclination. Long have government funds been used to mandate policy. Famously, the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act stipulated that to receive highway funding states must raise their drinking age to 21 years of age. Terms and conditions attached to funds by government very well act as a trojan horse for progressive ideology. These conditions could very well be used to insert DEI and other progressive ideological initiatives into education.

What were once fully independent private schools can quickly become left-wing echo chambers under the pressure of new funds. What would be a new customer base quickly comes with terms and conditions applied. It is simply bad business to turn away new funds when in competition with other schools. Slowly, schools that were once free become enslaved to government progressivism.

If the government simply issues vouchers, it also poses the risk of raising prices. Guaranteeing a minimum amount of money to be spent on education presents an effective price floor for private schools. Private schools with the guarantee of voucher money could raise their tuition costs to the amount of the voucher or above it, simply adding it to the amount consumers already paid for the service.

Look only to government funding of higher education as a classic example. Starting in 1965 with Federal Family Education Loans that were guaranteed by the federal government and eventually expanding into direct government loans, the U.S. government has guaranteed income for private and public university alike. The costs speak for themselves:

(Source: Education Data)

Government guarantees of payment increase costs in higher education and are likely to do just as much for primary education. If costs are forced down to a certain level by the federal government to make vouchers cover all costs, what differentiates it from nationalizing private schools? Costs will rise and government regulation sneak in.

Government involvement in yet another market simply distorts what would otherwise be a generally clean clearing mechanism. Taxes are levied on the population. Many of those who have taxes levied on them are barred from access to the so-called service provided by it. With reduced wealth, the families who wish to get their children an education are forced between a rock and a hard place. They must either send their children to the prison camps we call public schools, or they may pay out of an already shorter pocket to send their children to another school.

These public schools lack proper mechanisms to gauge their performance and efficiency, only the arbitrary dictates of the Department of Education. Vouchers do not solve these issues. These simply drag competent schools into the swamp that is public administration. Money from taxpayers comes with terms, much like any deal with the devil has its conditions. Those who value the freedom of those schools should oppose opening the doors for bureaucrats. Once they are let in, they are like rats; you can never quite get them out.