Tuesday, August 28, 2012

School choice may not deliver the goods

I recently came across the blog post called School choice in the long run by Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior.  I have liked a few of his other posts, especially one on immigration, where he indicates his support for a more liberal (in the classical sense) immigration policy.  But this post on school choice, aka privatization, is pretty annoying to me.

Before I go further, I should give a little background on myself.  I am the son of two teachers.  One teaches social studies at a public high school and the other teaches music at a private school.  I attended public school in elementary and high school and a private school in the intervening years.

Now that I got that out of the way, let me address the bit of research that Mr. Ozimek points to that I believe can most easily be challenged, so I can spend the remainder of this post on the more interesting finding.  He points out that in a school system with a lottery system for selecting students to receive a voucher, students who receive the voucher have lower truancy rates (see here for the study).  I guess I am supposed to be impressed by how this is set up just like an experiment.  Well, I'm not because there's a fundamental problem with this issue: policy invariance.  Let me enlist the Lucas critique.  How exactly do we know that the same result would be forthcoming if public schools (or private/charter schools, for that matter) would change their policy regarding truancy?  Any private school I know of would threaten a student with expulsion if a student had enough of a problem with truancy.  Some might say this is an institutional feature of private education,  which presumably gives them a comparative advantage, but what if public schools found other effective ways to address truancy?  My point nonetheless remains: that the findings are not necessarily policy-invariant.  Put clearly, if the private schools had to adopt the same policy on truancy as public (or the inverse), would the findings still hold up?

The other research finding is that African Americans (and, as far as the researchers could tell, only African Americans) who receive a voucher and attend a private school are more likely than nonparticipants in the voucher scheme to go to college (the study is here).  That sounds like it is because of the vouchers, but couldn't it also be a matter of cultural influences in the private schools?  That is what the paper New Evidence about Brown v. Board of Education: The Complex Effects of School Racial Composition on Achievement by Eric Hanushek, et al., seems to say.  I wonder whether a policy of busing within New York City public schools might not be able to achieve something similar.  That being said, improving the life prospects of underprivileged African Americans is always a good thing.  But this is hardly an unequivocal argument for "school choice", it may just call for a more racially integrated public school system.

In general, I am skeptical of "school choice".  Many seem to think of "school choice" as a silver bullet, that will "fix" our "broken" educational system.  Economists, advisors and policymakers out there think that their reasoning is convincing, but it has not been proven that "school choice" delivers on its promises and, even if it were shown to, are the results policy invariant?  Many of the highest-performing educational systems don't "do" "school choice", although that is hardly proof either way.  "School choice" is not proven and so I am left to conclude that it may not deliver the goods (so why bother?).

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