In an end of the year article in City Journal, Marcus A. Winters celebrates 2011 as “The Year of the Voucher.” After a decade of slow movement on expanding the voucher approach to school choice, Winters reports, suddenly 2011 saw legislatures in 12 states adopt voucher policies or expand existing programs, and the U.S. Congress saved the D.C. voucher program at the last minute. This is good news for many families, especially those with low incomes, but I’d caution against seeing vouchers as the solution to educational shortcomings in the United States.
Vouchers and charter schools are two kinds of market-based approaches to schooling. Vouchers subsidize demand. Their purpose is to increase buying power among consumers of education (families) and give those consumers the power to choose among providers (schools). Charter schools subsidize supply. Their purpose is to increase the range of school types by funding institutions with competing strategies for education, with the idea that the consumers can then choose among many different providers. Both of these market-based approaches represent efforts to break down state monopolies on public schooling. State monopolies, choice advocates argue, have no motivation to provide high quality or varied goods to consumers. Just as the stores in the old Soviet Union were scantily stocked with inferior merchandise, so a monopolistic school system stocks its classrooms with shoddy curricular offerings and mediocre teaching.
The poor in this market perspective suffer the greatest damage because they are most subject to monopoly. Higher-income families can opt out of low-performing schools by moving to other school districts, by enrolling in private or parochial schools, or by home-schooling. In effect, then, our present public school system is a competitive market for those who have sufficient resources, but a monopoly for the disadvantaged.
I cautiously support vouchers (and charters) as ways of improving schooling for some families in some places. But I don’t have as much faith in them as Winters and other choice advocates. This is because, although I do see schools as competitive markets, I think most exponents of school reform of all varieties misunderstand just what kind markets they are. Specifically, voucher and charter advocates tend to describe students at different times as consumers of schooling and as products of schooling. But students (and the families and communities from which they come) are also, very importantly producers of schooling. The quality of a school depends, more than anything else, on the efforts and dedication of the students, who bring their capacity to learn to the school from their families and communities. Each student shares whatever capacity for learning he or she brings to the school with all other students. For this reason, when parents have the opportunity to seek a good school what they really want is a school with highly motivated, well-prepared students who will create a desirable environment for their own children. By giving low-income families choice through vouchers or some other kind of subsidy, we essentially offer ambitious, committed poor families a chance to escape from concentrations of bad students.
Ironically, even market-based subsidies can worsen the problem of education by encouraging misplaced accountability. If we maintain that students don’t learn because their schools are failing them, we are preserving the myth that students succeed or fail because of something that systems or policies give them or don’t give them. By adhering to the illusion that everyone can and will achieve some accepted level of learning if only officialdom gives them the right program, we move responsibility away from the social structures that primarily shape children. It will probably help some people in 2012 if there are voucher programs in more places, and those programs won’t be worse than the present system. But let’s hope in 2012 we can get away from the idea that tinkering with the education industry can enable schools to crank out the right kinds of products.