14.3.10

I PERSEVERE. It took 25 years for my inquiry about a roller coaster at Bay Beach Amusement Park to catch on, and I have been beating the drums for faster Hiawatha service for at least five years. On and off, I have been informing readers about the form school choice takes in the U.S.
And note the way in which school choice with government schools works. You do have school choice, provided you're willing to pay the premium for the house in the better school district. And the right preschool?
And when Megan McArdle took it up, I was able to go one better. Here's the McArdle version.
Actually, this makes me think that a lot of the opposition to vouchers is about that affluent suburbanite's need to maintain the delusion that they care about inner city public schools. Memo to suburban voucher opponents who "support public education": you're already sending your kid to private school. You're just confused because your tuition fees came bundled with granite countertops and hardwood floors.
And my extension:
That reminds me of McCormick, Shughart, and Tollison's 1984 "The Disinterest in Deregulation," wherein the rents are concentrated and the welfare gains small and costly to collect. And yes, genuine competition among school districts is likely to bring in its train some capital losses to current homeowners whose mortgages include that test-score premium in the house price.
Now, via The Bellows, comes a conversation that touches on all these points.
Kevin Drum highlights a really regrettable defense of public schools that goes as follows. School systems are neighborhood-based, and so the benefit of good schools is capitalized into home prices. Households that care about education are willing to pay for good schools while those that don’t, aren’t. Freedom! Or something.
It's not that simple. Prices ration access to scarce resources. It's quite possible that the price of a bundle consisting of that McMansion and a good school district is high so as to encourage self-selection. (It might have been Walter Bagehot who made a similar observation about first- and third-class train fares in England, although in that case he claimed the railroads, er, railways, degraded the third-class service so as to discourage the richer passengers from riding on the cheap.) There's analysis along those lines in The Bellows.

The conversation about education policy appears to have begun here.
That is, parents have the right to settle in whatever school district they choose. (They also have a constitutional right to send their children to private school if they wish.) Predictably, therefore, those families willing to pay the most for a good education gravitate to the best schools, the “price” of which is reflected in the cost of real estate and local property taxes, while the families that care the least about education gravitate to the worst. Meanwhile, the extent to which parents value education itself enhances (or degrades) school quality, as schools are always more likely to thrive when they can attract the families with the highest social capital. Thus, good schools and “good” (that is, education-valuing) families cluster together. So long as Americans enjoy freedom of movement, supply and demand will always tend to produce a huge gap between successful and failing schools. The outcome is basically fair and not altogether inefficient.
It's not clear that there has to be a huge gap between successful and failing schools. There's nothing inherent in Tieboutian competition among jurisdictions that requires a wide range of outcomes. (An educational establishment that aggravates tension between education-valuing families and families with other objectives by mainstreaming slow learners and troublemakers, or by enabling disruptive behavior as a cultural difference, will produce more pressures to outmigrate.)
School vouchers, for example, a favorite policy of “accountability” proponents, punish those very school systems that have already worked very hard, thank you very much, to attract the best students and most civic-minded parents. (It’s no surprise that vouchers have proven to be politically unpopular, including if not especially among Republican voters.) Similarly, shutting down failing schools and redistributing their students punishes those schools that have performed marginally better and thereby attracted marginally better students and parents. The “accountability” movement, in short, wants to equalize the quality of educational products, no matter the price paid for them. Whatever this merits of this policy, it surely does not show much faith in the free market.
And here, the author conflates two effects. Vouchers have the potential to inflict capital losses on homeowners who are currently buying a Tieboutian bundle including good schools, with those higher College Board scores capitalized into the house prices. They also have the potential to encourage favorable self-selection. At the margin, vouchers and transfers need not transform the equivalent of a Milwaukee Hamilton of the early 1970s into the dropout factory that it is today, basketball success or not.

This essay gets to the heart of the matter.
If we really want better schools in the areas that have the poorest results, we’ll have to fix communities first. And communities will need to do that from the ground up, not Washington down. That’s no simply task, but it is at least more realistic than thinking we can fix schools through federal legislation or by issuing standardized tests or pushing all students toward higher education or by sucking money from the public schools and redistributing it into private ones.
To do so would require the colleges of education to lose their fascination with Rousseau and understand their objective as preparing teachers to develop the habits of the middle class in youngsters. Oppressive as that sounds, it is less oppressive than allowing youngsters to believe that anything goes.

It appears as though Kevin Drum at Mother Jones is catching on.
Or, on a more serious note, we could fund poverty and educational interventions with proven track records, allow schools more leeway to deal with incorrigible students, encourage our best teachers to work in our most challenging schools and allow principals to fire the ones who fail, promote experimentation via charter schools, and make sure every school is adequately funded. Feel free to add your own favorite ideas to this list. It's a little messy and it's no silver bullet — it's a long, hard slog, if you will — but these are the sorts of things that will eventually make a difference. Best of all, some of it is even politically feasible.
It's more important that the right things be done than that I get credit for it.

No comments: