WILL Blog | Don’t give up on the free market when it comes to school choice

Over the weekend, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Alan Borsuk wrote on an important new book focused on the problems of governance in Milwaukee’s diverse education sector.  But while the article and study have identified some very real problems in the city, the chief solution – more top-down government – should be rejected, especially by conservatives.

As described in yesterday’s Journal Sentinel, in his new book, UW-Oshkosh Professor Michael Ford describes a system in which public schools, private schools, and charter schools all compete for the same students and resources with what often seems like more concern for increasing their share of enrollment than for the overall outcomes achieved by students.   And while voucher and charter schools outperfom MPS when appropriate control variables are included, it is impossible to ignore the large share of schools with academic low proficiency that continue to exist across all sectors.  Ford argues that this is a problem of “governance fragmentation,” where no single institutional actor is concerned about aggregate improvement for the city’s kids.

To reduce this fragmentation, Ford envisions a system where all the cities school systems are under the umbrella of a single governing board.  This board would have members elected from all school sectors, as well as members elected at-large from the city.  But rather than improving overall performance, the imposition of a top-down governance structure like Ford envisions is likely to exacerbate performance issues.

Here’s why.

Before closing the door on the ability of the market to improve performance, we might ask ourselves whether we have even tried to fully  implement a market in Milwaukee’s schools at all.  The reality is that, while the MPCP has some characteristics of a market, it is far from fulfilling the vision that Milton Friedman laid out in the mid-1950s.  For example, schools are required to accept the voucher as the full cost of attendance, eliminating price competition from the market.   Additionally, students are only allowed to utilize a voucher up to a certain income threshold, meaning that higher income families are not able to influence the market, and such students often do not participate in the city’s private school market at all. Schools do not receive the same funding per pupil, with choice and charter school students receiving $1,000s less per student than the city’s public schools.    Recent research has shown that such impositions on the voucher sector limit creativity and diversity in school systems, and make voucher schools far more homogenous.

But an even bigger limitation on the marketplace in Milwaukee is the lack of information that parents have about their educational options. Especially for the low income families that represent the majority of Milwaukee’s students, the cost of seeking out information about schools can be quite high.  Report card grades are difficult to understand, and moreover no affirmative action is required on the part of parents to select into the traditional public school.  This is far different, for example, than the information environment that exists when one considers what restaurant to go to for dinner.  Within 10 seconds, I can access reviews and scores for every restaurant within a mile of where I sit.   The fact that no food is provided unless I make a choice motivates the search for the optimal option.  A class of parents queued into the performance of their local schools would be far more likely to overcome the problem of governance fragmentation than the alternative solution proposed by Ford. This is because parents are far more concerned with various aspects of school performance than with whether a church,  university, or school district is in charge of the school.

Even if a governance board includes representation from all sectors, there is a substantial danger for the board to come under the heavy hand of the MPS.  Despite the encouraging growth in choice and charter schools, a majority of Milwaukee students still attend a traditional public school. If representation on this board is related at all to share of students enrolled, the board would be dominated by MPS, which has a long history of opposition to any sort of substantial reform.  Citywide elections would be no better, as teachers unions have a proven track record of dominating such elections.

The problem identified by Ford should not be ignored, and serious thought should be given to all reasonable solutions.  But a marketplace that has never been born cannot have failed, and I submit that we should work towards giving the invisible hand a fairer shake before submitting to the heavy hand of centralized control.

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