The Market Doesn’t Care About Educational Equity

/ 8 April 2014 / eunice

Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, April 8, 2014 – As the rhetoric in Minnesota’s upcoming gubernatorial race heats up, you’re bound to hear a lot about school choice — in-district choice programs, charter schools, and vouchers to private schools. While Minnesota currently doesn’t have a voucher system, here are a few key details to keep in mind when candidates toss out the idea.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University, presenting at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference this year, reported that many areas that have voucher programs don’t have enough participating private school “seats” to meet the voucher supply.Private schools in these areas can choose not to accept vouchers, and many choose to do so for financial, academic, or religious reasons. Of the private schools willing to accept vouchers, many are Catholic schools (where tuition is already pretty close to the voucher amount), and families that aren’t Catholic may be reluctant to jump in.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. In most cases, vouchers are less than the amount private schools charge for tuition, but participating schools are generally expected to accept the voucher as payment in full. Accepting students on vouchers may also require private schools to participate in state tests that they were not previously subject to. Finally, for schools that have been built around a particular focus or denomination, accepting students from outside their preferred type can be seen as less than preferable.

Voucher supporters may not see this as too big of a problem, anticipating that the market will provide by seeing new schools open specifically to take in students on vouchers. Families sold on the program who assume that vouchers will let their children access local high-prestige, high-quality private schools, however, may find themselves disappointed.

This raises the question of who does fill that gap between existing schools willing to accept vouchers and the number of people looking to use vouchers. This is where the experience of Milwaukee’s longstanding voucher program, and to a lesser degree, established charter school programs (which are also about the creation of new schools outside the traditional district system), are instructive. Roughly, we can think of most new schools as falling into one of five categories:

  1. Schools started from scratch by well-intentioned people, and that prove effective and sustainable.
  2. Schools started from scratch by well-intentioned people, and that prove ineffective and/or unsustainable.
  3. Schools started by multi-school chains that prove effective and sustainable.
  4. Schools started by multi-school chains that prove ineffective and/or unsustainable.
  5. Schools started with the intention of making a quick buck on public dollars, at the expense of children and families.

Here, the state has a definite interest in making sure that the process of starting and running schools that accept public money—whether private schools accepting vouchers or charter schools—are effective and sustainable. This is where the pure free market ideology underlying a market-based system of education runs into the necessary regulation required to advance equity. It’s a reminder of what we’ve known for a long time: Markets promote efficiency, not equity. The conditions required for an equitable school system are not, in general, compatible with the conditions required for a purely competitive market.

As recent reports here in Minnesota have demonstrated, there is still a need to keep an eye on how we maintain effective oversight of charter schools, too. Here, that means relying on state-approved authorizers to keep an eye on the charter schools in their charge. While there has been some attention paid to increasing the pressure on authorizers to close charter schools over academic performance as measured by test scores and graduation rates, we also need to keep an eye on other factors that contribute to the quality and safety of the education students receive.

One major goal of school choice is to give families more power over their children’s education. People should have more power than just the option to walk away from district schools. We need to do more to empower families to help guide and improve the schools their children attend within districts, and we need to ensure that non-district options are safe, high-quality, and not out to exploit students and families. The market doesn’t care about education equity, so we have to.