(Note: Following is an edited version of a commentary that first appeared in the June 2006 School Choice Advocate, published by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.)
If NEA President Reg Weaver walked up to you and said: "Have I got a school voucher plan for YOU! Care to endorse it?" would you want to take a look at it before offering your approval?
This is a hypothetical (and unlikely) scenario, but you see the point. It’s possible to slap the "school choice" (or "voucher," or "tax credit") label on pretty much any policy imaginable. As a result, we can all envisage "choice" plans that we’d be reluctant to champion.
This hypothetical raises some very practical and very important questions: If there are choice plans that would do more harm than good, which ones are they? How can we tell the good from the great, and the so-so from the awful. To some extent, this is unavoidable. The legislative process is lubricated by compromise, and there is currently no state in the nation where a free market education policy could be enacted without a whole lot of lubricant. We cannot allow the best to become the enemy of the good, pulling the plug on reforms that, while short of ideal, at least move us in the right direction.
But is every "school choice" policy currently in existence and on the drawing board necessarily a step forward, or could leave us worse off than when we started?
In principle at least, it is possible that a policy could have beneficial effects in the short- run but give rise to undesirable side effects in the long-run. It’s also possible that a weak program incapable of producing significant positive results could actually hurt the prospects for passing better policies, through guilt by association.
To reduce the risk of such Pyrrhic legislative victories, we feel that the following questions have to be asked. We do not all have positions on every one of these questions, and the positions we do hold are not always in agreement. What we share is a deep concern that these issues be given the attention they deserve.
With those thoughts in mind:
Will small, particularly sparse, programs make it harder to pass big ones?
The effectiveness of markets depends on their size and concentration. The more prospective customers there are, the more entrepreneurs will be willing to enter the field (provided that profit-making is permitted), and the more competitors there are, the more specialization can be supported. Hence, size matters.
At least as important as market size is market concentration. Fifty schools 100 miles apart will not generate as much competition, and hence efficiency, as the same number just 10 miles apart.
So, if small programs that scatter students widely around a state are unlikely to create substantial market forces, will they give the false impression that genuine market reforms would also be ineffective?
What regulations should be considered drop-dead conditions?
One of the cornerstones of a free market is the ability of providers to specialize to serve different clienteles. As a result, any policy requiring private schools to follow state curriculum guidelines would arguably kill the prospects for creating a true educational marketplace. Should this be considered a deal breaker?
The imposition of mandatory high-stakes testing on private schools has a similar effect, because such tests drive the curriculum and hence would also curtail specialization and the division of labor. Same question.
Also crucial to effective markets is the ability of employers to hire the best people they can find. Therefore, any mandate that private schools hire state-certified teachers is exceedingly problematic. Of course some states already require this of their private schools even in the absence of a school choice program, which makes matters more difficult. Should such restrictions be deemed unacceptable?
What about compulsory collective bargaining for schools of choice?
Will charter schools enlarge the existing government monopoly in the long run?
We know this is a delicate question, but our own history demands that it be asked. A close historical analogue to a modern charter school is a conventional U.S. public school of the mid-to-late 1800s. In fact, early public schools had greater local control and autonomy than most charters do today.
Look what has become of them.
The natural pattern for public schools has been relentlessly increasing centralization and regulation. Is there any reason to think that charter schools, or any public school choice variation, will escape that fate?
Many private schools are opting to convert to charter schools as a way of alleviating financial pressures, so the eventual result could be a nearly universal government monopoly that is as heavily regulated as are public schools today. Is that a tolerable risk?
Can the risk of this scenario be abated by coupling charter school programs with stronger market education reforms that include private schools (and that preserve their autonomy)?
How important is direct payment of tuition by parents?
Historically and internationally, schools paid for by the state tend to look like state schools. This can be observed from India and Indonesia to the Netherlands. One large scale statistical study finds that school efficiency (measured in terms of test score points per dollar spent) is positively and significantly related to the share of funding coming directly from parental fees.
The Dutch, who have had a nationwide voucher program since 1917, are toying with creating what we would call charter schools. The reason is that their vouchers now come with such a heavy burden of regulation (everything from teachers’ salaries to the curriculum is set by the state) that the opportunity for specialization and innovation has all but vanished.
Is there any way to defend government-funded private schools from regulatory encroachment? Alternately, are there ways of ensuring universal access to the education marketplace without spending government funds? Would that really help?
What is the cost, in social conflict and litigation, of compulsory tax-funded schooling (of any system that compels taxpayers to support schools that may violate their convictions)? What are the alternatives?
What is the proper role of the federal government in education?
The Constitution mentions neither the word "education" nor the word "school," and hence reserves, by the 10th Amendment, power over education to the people and their state representatives. Does that matter? Should we advocate/condone/tolerate federal choice programs anyway?
Entirely apart from the Constitutional concern, what about the risks of centralized educational power? Under our (still largely) federalist system, any state that thoroughly botches its own education system is likely to drive families and businesses to other states, creating an important check against excessive and harmful government interventions. That check would disappear under a national school choice program. Remember the degree of central control in the Netherlands. Is this a risk worth taking, or something to be avoided?
These are hard questions. Even with a solid empirical foundation for our deliberations, we won’t necessarily all agree on every policy. But any effort that reduces our risk of driving the school choice bandwagon into a ditch will be worthwhile.
Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Additional contributions to this essay were made by Matthew Brouillette, Commonwealth Foundation; Joseph Lehman, Mackinac Center; Myron Lieberman, Education Policy Institute; Neal McCluskey, Cato Institute; John Merrifield, University Of Texas, San Antonio; Ryan Olson, Mackinac Center; Herbert Walberg, Hoover Institution; and Bob Williams, Evergreen Freedom Foundation.