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Satisfaction Guaranteed

March 18th, 2007 · 12 Comments

Megs on school choice:

I can build a pretty cogent argument in favour of single-provider education based on equity. We could conceivably say that we want every child in the country to receive a uniform educational product, in the interests of levelling the playing field as much as possible before we send them out to compete in Life’s Great Rugby Scrum.

But I can only construct this argument if I completely ignore what American education actually looks like. Democrats complaining that a voucher system would lead to massive stratification by income leave me slightly flabbergasted. In what way could our educational system possibly become more stratified than it already is, short of just pulling poor kids out of school entirely and sending them to work in the coal mines at age six? Is it really conceivable that kids in inner city schools could get a worse education even from some awful fly-by-night unit where the books are written in Swahili, than they are currently enjoying right there at PS 82? I mean, at least they might learn a little Swahili.

First, I doubt even the “equity” rationale holds up that well: Apart from the general repugnance of “leveling down” thinking, which privileges uniformity over quality when the two conflict, it’s especially ill-suited for something like education. The shoe that fits one, as Jung had it, pinches another: There’s no reason to think “uniform” schools will provide meaningful equity for different kids with different learning styles.

But leaving that aside, I think what Meg’s bumping into here is a common (but misguided) tendency to place excessive stock in formal “guarantees,” almost as though the word (at least in statues) had some kind of hypnotic power. Sure, actually existing public schools may produce a caste system as rigid and inequitable as anything you’d find in the fevered free-market dystopias that haunt Noam Chomsky’s nightmares, but in theory, Marge, in theory, they’re engines of equal opportunity. This is the progressive version of the intelligent design fallacy—the implicit belief that complex results must be consciously aimed at to be achieved—indeed, that to declare the intent to produce quality and equality vigorously enough in the appropriate magic statue books is sufficient to produce the result: fiat iuxta! Of course, if you actually want to promote greater educational equality, it seems as though one big and obvious thign to do would be to decouple schooling from geography and local property taxes to the extent possible. Maybe I’m excessively sanguine here, but supporting vouchers seems like one of the few ways to make this otherwise politically very difficult project more feasible.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 c // Mar 18, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    First of all, that post was just effin’ brilliant.

    My only nit to pick is with the last line, specifically with the specific endorsement of vouchers as the optimal manifestation of education choice. Remember, program design matters. Many of our worst public policy problems (e.g., health care) are the result of unforeseen consequences of policy details (e.g., 3rd party payer b/c employers pay with pre-tax dollars).

    To that effect, I would have to say that currently the best program would be tax credits for the middle class and vouchers for the poor. The poor need vouchers because they don’t have tax liability to be credited against.

    But tax credits have the advantage that they make paying tuition into something resembling a private transaction. This circumvents a potentially dangerous move by the government to prescribe/proscribe, ex ante, a given school’s standards and practices. It’s important that we loosen the vise of one-size-fits-all government control—rather than inadvertently exporting it to independent schools.

  • 2 PG // Mar 19, 2007 at 2:08 am

    There’s a statute guaranteeing educational equality? Do tell.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Mar 19, 2007 at 2:26 am

    I talk at the end about funding varying with neighborhoods, so obviously I understand there’s no legally mandated equality of funding within states–that’s neither really the point nor my claim. You do see language like “free and appropriate” in the law, though, and you do see the ideal of educational equality advanced as a rationale for maintaining single-provider education.

  • 4 c // Mar 19, 2007 at 9:22 am


    I see you’re a law student. Nevertheless, perhaps you’ve heard of educational adequacy and equity lawsuits? They’ve only been brought in about 45 states.

  • 5 Consumatopia // Mar 19, 2007 at 11:51 am

    This is the progressive version of the intelligent design fallacy—the implicit belief that complex results must be consciously aimed at to be achieved—indeed, that to declare the intent to produce quality and equality vigorously enough in the appropriate magic statue books is sufficient to produce the result: fiat iuxta!

    If you want to make an evolutionary argument, you have to realize that the way evolution by random mutation works is by failure. Trial and error. Lots and lots of error. Millions of kids lives would be ruined, society would collapse, and a new society billions of years from now would have evolved the innate capacity to build properly functioning schools for their multi-tentacled offspring. Or something like that. Anyway, the point is that if you want progress you can find in the newspaper rather than in the fossil record, you need intelligence.

    Maybe I’m excessively sanguine here, but supporting vouchers seems like one of the few ways to make this otherwise politically very difficult project more feasible.

    Surely if the alliance of people who want vouchers and people who want equality (completely inconsistent with vouchers) banded together could implement your scheme, couldn’t they also implement our scheme instead? It seems this line of argument is completely symmetric.

    The argument that things are so bad they can’t get worse doesn’t hold water. There are some kids the status quo completely fails, but it’s perfectly possible that a poorly implemented voucher system would completely fail a much larger collection of kids. Her entire argument is premised on the complete inability of the government to implement anything properly at all, which suggests they’d screw up vouchers, too.

  • 6 PG // Mar 19, 2007 at 11:55 am

    Mr. Sanchez,

    If the law only requires “free and appropriate” education, I’m confused as to how you can claim that the public education now on offer obviously fails that standard. It manifestly is free, and whether it is “appropriate” is going to be a hard fought question. After all, a few students do manage to extract a decent education even from the worst of schools, so those who are unwilling to improve such schools always can point to that minority in defense of the education’s being “appropriate.”


    In my post I mention particularly the adequacy and equity litigation that’s occurred in Texas and New York, and I’m aware of lawsuits having been brought in many other states as well. To my knowledge, all of those that have been successful have depended on judicial interpretations of state constitutional guarantees. Also, they have been far more successful on the “adequacy” than the “equity” side. Bringing a lawsuit claiming X is hardly a guarantee that X will be established as The Law. Again, please point out the statute (federal, state, whatever) that requires equality in education.

    What troubles me is Sanchez’s apparent claim that our “magic statute books” ever have declared an intent for educational equality, and that because we do not have equality, therefore statutes are a failure and the market is the solution. As Consumptopia implies, that also skips over the question of whether, if we actually had a statutory commitment to educational equality — particularly at the federal level — we could reorganized funding such that geography ceases to be an issue with regard to money. Instead of vouchers, why not a regime in which the school in the Bronx and the one in Beverly Hills each receives an equal per student (adjusted for special needs students) allotment from the federal government?

  • 7 c // Mar 19, 2007 at 12:32 pm


    Schools in Newark and Camden spend $17,000 – $18,000 per student annually. See here and here. Some estimates have Washington DC schools spending $25,000 per year per kid.

    These systems include schools you wouldn’t dare walk into unarmed and unaccompanied.

    Yet some of the academically best-performing states in the nation–think North Dakota–spend a small fraction of that amount.

    People who’ve studied the education production function have known for a long, long, LONG time that simply spending more (by itself) guarantees you nothing. I point you to Eric Hanushek’s landmark 1986 article as just one example out of dozens. Actually, here’s something that’s more easily accessible on the web. (Check out the second highlighted inset text.)

    Final word. You’re making an unfalsifiable claim. IF we had a federal commitment to equal education expenditure, then we could test your claim. But that’s not going to happen. This is like old-fashioned communists who claim that communism has never been failed because it’s never been tried.

    The truth is that we HAVE tried throwing money at the problem. Absent any incentive to use that money wisely, it simply doesn’t work.

  • 8 William Newman // Mar 19, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    I think Julian Sanchez is closer to the mark than Jane Galt. 59% Democrat/union tactics and 39% real-estate tactics sounds too high to me. (Though I am tickled to see someone being so much more cynical than me; keep it up!:-)

    Consider another controversial issue seen on JS and JG sites recently: gun control. Most people don’t have any venal reasons for their preferences on that issue, they just feel that way. And there we see a similar pattern of people serenely assuming that there are guarantees of police protection (flying in the face of both anecdotal knowledge and formal law) and freaking out about problems under private control which they seem to assume somehow vanish under government control. Look at http://www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/rr2347.htm, “no legitimate use in our society,” and wonder about a guy who controls the Secret Service making that announcement when he has no intent of telling them to avoid automatic weapons or to reduce the size of the magazines they use. I conclude from this kind of thing that there are a sizable number of people who think differently about omigod-level dangers like inherently indiscriminate weapons and institutions inducing illiteracy as long as they’re administered by government.

    It is probably true that the people with a financial stake in reducing competition are wildly overrepresented in the actual lobbying. But that’s true of lobbying for professional licensure, too. It doesn’t follow that true believers with no special interest aren’t an important political force. Tried to convince many people to reduce medical licensure recently?

    Among those solidly against school choice, sincere true believers in centralization-in-the-abstract might not be 50% of the coalition, but I think they’re much more than 2%.

    Beyond that, there are other blocs too, neither JG nor JS. What about sincere paternalists and nationalists and environmentalists and so forth who don’t have any direct financial interest but who are deeply uncomfortable with reducing political control of the curriculum?

  • 9 Jason // Mar 19, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Mr. Newman is exactly right. An enormous aspect of the voucher debate has to do with control of the curriculum, on both sides of the issue.

  • 10 PG // Mar 19, 2007 at 9:30 pm


    Well, yes, simply spending more on *anything* isn’t a guarantee that it will be higher in quality; the money has to be spent effectively. I wouldn’t claim that simply “spending more money” on healthcare would improve overall outcomes if all the money went to 80somethings with multiple organ failures.

    How is North Dakota doing in educating the (relatively small) influx of non-English speakers they’ve gotten in recent years? and how have they done historically with the one racial minority of any size, i.e. Native Americans? And, duh it’s cheaper to educate in ND than it is in NJ or DC. It’s cheaper to do everything in ND, ranging from buying a gallon of milk to getting a lapdance.

    Also, I’m not sure that a state where 20% of rural residents — those on whom educational spending tends to be lowest — hadn’t finished high school is the best way to declare superiority to D.C., where 22% of residents hadn’t. Almost 18% of New Jersey residents haven’t completed high school; over 16% of all ND residents haven’t. Is a 2% difference that much to crow about, particularly given how vastly different each area is culturally?

    Arizona, which has had to contend with difficulties ND mostly doesn’t, particularly non-English speaking students, spends even less per student than ND, with a rural high school nongraduate rate of almost 26% in rural areas, 19% overall. And just for fun, let’s look at Mississippi, which is one of the five states with the lowest per student spending (a group that does NOT include ND, by the way): 31.7% rural nongrads; 27% overall.

    I would be fine with vouchers if they simply were a form of school choice. That is, if they were the exact amount that every person was allowed to spend on school, and that amount could be given to any secular school that one wanted to attend. (Basically the Swedish model.) What worries me are two possibilities: 1) that vouchers will be just enough money for poor students to take to poor schools, while they subsidize the education of the middle class and wealthy; 2) that in small towns like where I grew up, the only alternative to the public school will be a sectarian school, and as all the Baptists (or Catholic, or Jews, or whoever) take their money to their sectarian school, the public school’s economies of scale will collapse and people of minority religions or no religions will have to choose between indoctrination or no education.

  • 11 Timon Braun // Mar 20, 2007 at 6:17 am


    You’re looking at the evolution example backwards: the failures and extinctions will take place among competing providers, not end-users. The fact that plants compete for pollinators does not cost the bee or the bat anything. (In fact it sustains them.) Not all evolutionary concepts belong in the same mental basket.

  • 12 Dan S. // Mar 21, 2007 at 9:25 am

    “Schools in Newark and Camden spend $17,000 – $18,000 per student annually . . .”

    These kinds of comparisons have some major problems, though (although not as bad as repeated claims by state legislators in Harrisburg that Philadelphia should stop whining because it was getting more money for its schools than nearby high-performing suburban districts. And indeed, it literally was getting more money than other much smaller nearby districts with many fewer children . . .).

    For starters, it looks at school spending, not at the total investment in education per child by all involved – parents, etc.. I am completely unaware of any work in this area, but it would be very interesting to see attempts to calculate this, including the market value of, say, years of bedtime reading by college-educated parents, complete with cues and prompts that unknowingly echo school discourse, etc, as well as more obvious things like educational toys, books, paid enrichment activities, contributions of time, money, materials to school, etc. If you take (say)$10,000 per student suburban spending as a baseline, I suspect the suburban districts tack on an amount that dwarfs the Camden or Newark school spending.

    Meanwhile, again taking 10k/head as a benchline, I think it’s obvious that while growing up in an affluent suburban district has large positive benefits, growing up in Camden – which has the dubious benefit of being declared both the poorest and most violent city in America in recent years – generally has major costs that public education spending has to try to compensate for. I don’t know how much money would be needed to deal simply with the effects of lead poisoning, but . . .

    You’re looking at the evolution example backwards: the failures and extinctions will take place among competing providers, not end-users.
    I need you to take a moment and think how competition – including “failures and extinctions” – would work in this case in the real world of poor, inner city parents and children. Keep in mind that surveys consistently show that most parents are pretty satisfied with their children’s school, across all kinds of conditions. Also keep in mind that many of these parents have little in the way of mainstream social and cultural capital. And don’t forget that in, for example, DC, apparently a third of the population is functionally illiterate, and would have trouble reading a train schedule or completing an employment application.