In the first part of my two-part review of Education and Opportunity, I described how American Enterprise Institute research fellow Michael Q. McShane lays out an argument for school choice, calling for "a vibrant marketplace of education options."
McShane succinctly argues for improving schools as an economic and moral imperative. And he shows how some of the most commonly-advocated remedies (increasing school funding, reducing class size, and universal pre-school) may have merit but nevertheless do not provide sustainable, long-term solutions.
McShane also lays out research demonstrating the positive impacts of school choice alternatives like charter schools and voucher programs, but concludes that even these market-based reforms are insufficient for drastically improving student learning. These programs are simply too few and far between, and above all the bureaucratic structures of school regulation and accountability, which are designed to direct a government-run monopoly, place a significant "ceiling on their ability to effect large-scale change."
Specifically, the current stifling, micro-managing, top-down structures of school accountability are designed for a system in which the government operates a monopoly on educational delivery. "Because students as consumers don't have the option to leave, we hold the schools accountable with student test scores, attendance rates, and a variety of other metrics to ensure that providers are effectively fulfilling their role," McShane writes.
But if families had a genuine choice of where their children attend school, such draconian oversight becomes uncessary because schools would face the ultimate form of accountability: closure for lack of customers:
A market-based regulatory structure would look similar to how we regulate restaurants, home purchases, and automobiles. The government sets minimum health and safety requirements, determines certain floors of performance, establishes financial reporting rules to make sure money is actually going to the appropriate schools, and then allows people to choose between these vetted options. This protects people from harm without defining for them what a good school looks like.
McShane shows how, under such an accountable-but-consumer-driven system, there would no longer be a need for local school districts as we currently know them. Local educational authorities would essentially become regulatory agencies, but a wide variety of private and non-profit education vendors might emerge to actually deliver educational options to families.
This could be facilititated through the establishment of K-12 educational savings accounts (ESA), which families could use to send their children to the school of their choice, or used to purchase educational services from a variety of vendors (I've previously written about a la carte education here; McShane calls them "course choice programs").
To put this in Kentucky terms, rather than send the state-allocated amount of per pupil funding (called SEEK) to local school districts, each family would receive this funding directly through an ESA. And just like with the current SEEK formula, the amount of the ESA could be adjusted based on a student's particular needs (disability, free/reduced lunch status, etc.). Families would then use these funds to obtain educational services from a specific school or combination of schools and other vendors.
McShane also calls for the establishment of social impact bonds to encourage start-ups for new educational ventures, something that would be critical in a new, consumer-oriented educational market. Opponents of school choice often imagine that the only competitors would be the combination of public, charter, and private schools that currently exist. But in fact, a genuine educational market could see the flowering of a wide variety of schools and learning options that cater to more specific individual student needs and interests.
Ultimately, Education and Opportunity helps make the case that education, while a public good, does not have to be delivered directly by institutions run by the government.
This should go without saying, of course. Recipients of Medicaid use what is essentially a government voucher to obtain health care from private doctors of their own choosing; recipients of food stamps may select the grocery where they use their benefit; recipients of Pell grants choose among a variety of public and private colleges and universities - in none of these cases do most Americans consider the system would be more just or effective if there were only government run hospitals, grocery stores, or universities from which to choose. How is K12 education different?
I hope taxpayers and policymakers will heed the wisdom of Michael Q. McShane's powerful little treatise, Education and Opportunity, and I especially hope that professional educators will too. As I've written before, I am not aware of anyone who chose the vocation of teaching because they wanted to work for a state-run monopoly.
To the contrary, we work for these monopolies because they are the only mechanism for educational delivery for the vast majority of families. But it doesn't have to be this way, and we have the opportunity to deliver an even better learning experience for children, far better tailored to their individual desires and needs, if we consider a different way of thinking about schooling. Education and Opportunity is an excellent place to start.