The nomination of philanthropist and education reformer Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has reignited debates over school choice policies. Aside from the opposition of groups invested in the status quo, pro-school choice reformers disagree about how to design choice policies and the role of the federal government.
Any policy that empowers parents with more educational options beyond their assigned school district is an improvement over the status quo, which is plagued by runaway spending and flat, mediocre performance. But not every policy will produce the transformative innovation our system needs. Designing the right policy requires understanding the elements necessary for an education system to produce a large and diverse array of high-quality options that innovate and improve over time.
Beyond Choice: Freedom
In his seminal work Market Education: The Unknown History, the late education researcher Andrew J. Coulson surveyed education systems across centuries and continents, from ancient Greece to modern Japan, looking for patterns among successful education systems that transcended cultures and historical moments.
After an exhaustive search — later supplemented with a rigorous statistical analysis of the global research — Coulson identified five key elements for a well-functioning education system: choice and financial responsibility for parents, and freedom, competition, and the profit motive for schools.
Education reformers talk a lot about parental choice in education — and for good reason: no one has a greater incentive to look after the well-being of a child, or more information about that child’s individual needs, than his or her parents. However, the other four elements are also vitally important but too often overlooked.
1. Give Parents Skin in the Game
Parental control over their child’s education is greatly dependent upon parents having some direct financial responsibility: she who pays the school piper calls the instructional tune. When third parties pay for the entirety of a child’s education, schools will cater to those parties’ instructional preferences and values.
Low-income parents may require subsidies, whether through charity or public assistance, to guarantee access to a quality education, but it is in their interest that they should bear at least some of the cost in order to maintain a significant degree of control. Moreover, parents who are financially invested in their child’s education tend to take greater interest in how their money is being spent.
2. Make Schools Compete
Parents and students also benefit when there is vigorous competition among education providers. A wide and diverse array of options means parents are more likely to find a provider that meets their child’s learning needs and aligns with their values.
Moreover, whereas monopolistic systems often stagnate, competition gives educators a strong incentive to continuously look for new and better ways to serve kids, lest their competitors find methods that produce superior results at a lower cost.
3. Let Schools Be Different
However, the only way competition will foster educational diversity and innovation is if educators have the freedom to do so. That means the freedom to set their own curricula and to try new ways of delivering a quality education. It also entails the freedom of educators to determine their own mission and to target particular audiences.
All children should have access to a good school, but no school can be all things to all children. Schools should be able to specialize in different subject areas, follow a particular pedagogical model, or embody a particular philosophy or religion. Parents could then decide what option is right for their child: a STEM school or school for the arts, Great Books or Montessori, classical or progressive, religious or secular, and so on. Without variety, choice is meaningless.
4. Listen to Prices and Profit
Schools also need the freedom to set their own prices and earn a profit. Prices convey information. Price controls, such as caps on tuition for students using vouchers, can lead to shortages when schools either refuse to accept vouchers or lack an incentive to scale up because the voucher amount is less than the marginal cost of accepting an additional student.
Furthermore, allowing schools to earn profits provides a strong incentive for quality schools to expand, which is essential to providing universal access to a quality education. Choice programs that merely fill currently empty seats at existing schools benefit participating students, but fail to achieve the scale necessary to help all students or unleash the dynamism and innovation needed to transform the system.
Guideposts to Good Reform
With these five elements in mind, policymakers can better navigate decisions about policy design.
The goal of universal access to a quality education — and the need for a critical mass of participating students to produce robust competition — means policymakers should favor universal eligibility over targeted programs. To preserve parental control and benefit from the information conveyed by prices, policymakers should not cap tuition, but they should keep in mind that lower-income families and children with special needs may require greater financial assistance.
To control costs and expand educational options, policymakers should prefer education savings accounts (ESAs) over traditional school vouchers. ESAs empower families to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services beyond the classroom, thereby enabling greater educational diversity and innovation without creating a price floor.
In order to give educators the maximum freedom to determine their own missions and curricula, policymakers should eschew requiring open admissions and refrain from mandating a specific standardized test, which tend to stifle diversity and induce conformity. Instead, accountability for academic results should rest primarily with parents, not government bureaucrats.
States that enact programs lacking these elements are unlikely to realize the full potential of educational choice.
What about Washington?
We are still left with the question of the federal role. With a choice supporter like DeVos at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, some might be tempted to support a federal educational choice policy, but that would be unwise.
Aside from the fact that the federal government has no constitutional role in education (besides guaranteeing civil rights), there are compelling reasons for choice supporters to oppose federal entanglement. Federal regulations are easier to impose and harder to remove than those at the state level, which tend to be more responsive to citizens. Moreover, when a state adopts regulations that undermine school choice, it is regrettable, but at least the negative effects are confined to that state. Other states are free to pursue better policies. By contrast, there is no escaping from federal regulations.
Recent years have seen great advances toward educational freedom, and the coming years hold even more promise. However, if we want to take full advantage of the opportunity before us, we must work to ensure that the policies we craft contain the fundamental elements of a well-functioning education system. Educators should compete in a market in which they are free to determine what and how to teach and whether to earn a profit. Parents should have the freedom to choose among those options and bear at least some financial responsibility for their child’s education. Moving from our district-based education system to a system of educational freedom that embodies these elements would be a great advance for human freedom and flourishing.