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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Fair
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What's so bad about school choice?
Opponents are waging a misinformation campaign
on (1) Comment

Monopolists hate competition, and they'll say almost anything to prevent it. When natural gas competition was introduced in the mid-1980s, pipeline executives told regulators it would lead to gas explosions throughout Manhattan. As implausible as that tale was, it pales in comparison to the misinformation campaign waged by the public school monopoly against school choice.

The school choice movement is gathering steam because of one simple fact: Public education is one of the most unproductive and underperforming sectors in America. Since 1970, spending on public schools (per student, in inflation-adjusted terms) has more than doubled. Over the same period, students' combined math and reading scores have been flat, and the U.S. has fallen behind most other industrial nations on standardized tests.

Educational productivity can be measured as the "output" of educational achievement for each inflation-adjusted dollar spent per student, and by this measure, the productivity of American public schools has fallen by 50% since 1970. A dollar invested in public schools in the U.K., Ireland and New Zealand now yields nearly twice the educational achievement as the same dollar spent in U.S. public schools.

These results cannot be explained by the efforts made to educate the disadvantaged, or by "exit exams" that reduce the pool of high school graduates in some countries. America's public schools clearly need to be improved but, in spite of receiving a massive increase in resources, have consistently failed to do so. Given this dismal performance, the current calls for fundamental educational reform are natural, healthy and long overdue.

The school choice movement has answered this call by taking the factors that promote innovation elsewhere - decentralized decision-making, appropriately structured incentives and competition - and integrating them into education policy.

School choice involves giving public education funds directly to parents to "purchase" educational services from a variety of schools. Choice naturally expands the number and potential quality of educational options, and parents concerned for their children's welfare are highly motivated to choose wisely. Public schools, for their part, have far stronger incentives to deliver, because their revenues now depend directly on attracting and retaining students, not persuading lawmakers to spend even more on education.

Many public educators have responded to these developments the way monopolies typically do when their quiet lives are disrupted: by angrily casting aspersions on the potential competition. In a recent article by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, reprinted in The Capital Times under the subtle title "Selling Out Public Schools," some suggest that Wisconsin's burgeoning school choice movement is simply a payoff for campaign funds since a number of prominent choice advocates have contributed to (gasp) Republicans.

But the appeal of school choice cannot be reduced to simple power politics. In fact, the people most resistant to expanding choice are often suburban voters who vote Republican and (sometimes mistakenly) believe their schools are providing quality education. Inner-city minority parents are frequently the most vocal choice proponents because they experience sub-par education firsthand. Republicans who support school choice are actually taking political risks that run counter to raw political calculations.

Others vested in the public school monopoly have called school choice "a serious attack on public education in Wisconsin and a watering down of one of the best public school systems in the nation." But if a school really is "one of the best in the nation," it has nothing to lose, and a great deal to gain, when parents are allowed to choose where to send their children. More fundamentally, school choice is not an attack on public education; it is public education, because it too is financed with public funds.

The most preposterous anti-choice argument is that it will "privatize" education. As I write this, the most viewed article on Isthmus' TheDailyPage.com makes the risible claim that school choice advocates "have the admitted goal of privatizing public education and are using Wisconsin as a staging ground...to sell out our kids to such high-rolling bidders.... Efforts to 'reform' education in Wisconsin are little more than a financial venture."

But school choice simply gives public funds directly to parents to use as they see fit and does not involve any sales or "privatization" of public assets. If those parents select a private school, so be it. The purpose of education policy is to produce educated citizens, not protect failing schools by keeping their students locked inside.

The public should not be fooled by the self-interested arguments of public school bureaucrats or take false comfort in the fact that Wisconsin's public schools aren't as bad as those in some other states. Easy answers like spending more money also won't fix the problem; that approach has been tried for the last two generations and has manifestly failed.

Public education needs fundamental, institutional reform. School choice may not be the only possible response to long-term educational problems, but it deserves serious attention rather than knee-jerk condemnation.

Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.

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