Trust the Parents

Matt Yglesias links to an article in the American Prospect which reports that a Chilean voucher program had no effect on math and language scores and writes:

The Chilean vouchers experience gets some discussion in my vouchers article in last month's Prospect and now the website has more on this same subject. It continues to appear that voucherizing the school system does not, in fact, produce a magic competition effect that improves academic performance.

As I'm not a knee-jerk anti-market guy, it's worth saying something about why this is.

A vouchers program would not be the free market. In a free market, money is not taken by force from consumers and the redistributed to state-approved goods. Vouchers simply give more choice within a highly regulated system. Some pro-market advocates have supported vouchers as an intermediate step to a truly free market in education. Others fear that vouchers would lead the hands of the state into private education alternatives and would hinder the course to a truly free market in education. I tend to fall into the latter category.

Any evaluation of vouchers program has to keep this fact in mind: high regulation and state-approved choices do not mean the free market and are still burdened by a greater lack of choices than would be possible in a truly free market.

The sense in which markets are efficient is this: when you let consumers pick from a range of products, they tend to wind up with products that they like.

Markets work because they involve voluntary exchange. Consumers know their own preferences and learn over time which goods best help them attain their subjectively defined ends. Matt's framework is exactly backwards. There is nobody ?letting? anybody do anything in a market. Rather, people of their own free will make free choices until a third party steps in and forcibly prevents the first and second parties from doing what they mutually agree upon.

The "consumers" in a voucherized school system are parents. And, indeed, all the evidence I've seen (from the US and New Zealand in this case, rather than Chile) is that parents are happier with their children's schools under voucherized plans than under state-school-only plans. The trouble is that this will only lead to enhanced academic performance if (a) parental satisfaction is primarily caused by high academic performance, and (b) parents have a good idea of which schools generate said performance. Since academic performance is not, in fact, enhanced by vouchers it appears that one or both of those assumptions is wrong.

There is a couple of fundamental assumptions which Matt is overlooking on which his final concluding sentence above is based:

  1. That the purpose of education is what Matt, rather than the child?s parents, defines it to be.
  2. Testing is an objective measure of the purpose defined by Matt.

Both of these assumptions are highly dubious, as people define the purpose of education in vastly different ways. Some people see education as simply a means to attain skills helpful in finding employment. Others see education as a scholarly pursuit that is an end, in and of itself. I see education as an enjoyable and fulfilling lifelong process, and one reason I blog is that helps me achieve this particular goal. To pidgeon-hole education into a single purpose is to deny the great diversity of human ends.

Even if Matt chose one of those particular goals for the rest us, it does not follow that testing can measure if that goal is being reached. Anyone who has been through the public education system in the US knows that testing little to do with education. Taking a timed multiple-choice test based on questions made up by people with education degrees is not a measure of learning. Teachers end up teaching to the test and schools have a perverse incentive to let the worst students drop out in order to raise the average. Students become pressured to perform well and lose their natural inborn curiosity and drive to learn.

Basically, the incentive structure for schooling is mis-aligned. We want schools where children learn a lot, but giving children schools that make their parents happy does not, in fact, produce this outcome.[?]

Do parents know what is best for their children? Or does Matt Yglesias? Millions of years of evolution and the sociocultural ties of the family unit can lead us to the answer.

The other thing in the Chilean case is that most Chileans don't live in Santiago. Studies show that the vouchers have worked better in Santiago than outside of Santiago and the reason would seem to be that Santiago is a fairly dense cities with a fairly high degree of school density so parents have a lot of viable choices to make. Elsewhere, though, the simply question of how far away the school is exerts a major impact over what choices people make, which weakens the whole enterprise.

I think the moral of that last story is that vouchers could be a good idea for some portions of the US where there are a large number of schools that a child could feasibly attend. Manhattan, say, where the radius between my home (12th street and University Place) and my high school (Park Avenue and 89th street) encompassed well over a dozen high schools while leaving the total distance of my commute at under 30 minutes.

Which would result in more choices for poor and rural families: vouchers or a completely socialized state-education system?

At the end of the day, though, you have to worry that unless there's a lot of regulation of voucher-eligible schools that parents are going to make some very bad choices in this regard. There are, for example, a large number of parents who would strongly prefer that their children not be taught the theory of evolution. A market-based school system would increase parental utility by satisfying this particular preference, but it would also lead to children receiving dramatically worse science education. Etc.

So Matt is willing to forcibly prevent the free choices of parents because he wants his particular version of The Truth indoctrinated into other people?s children. Some might call that selfish.

The last paragraph quoted sums up what I find most disturbing about Matt?s post: a deep, underlying mistrust of parents. Matt does not believe that parents can make choices for their children?s education, or that parents have their best interests at heart. Should we extend this argument further and claim that parents don?t know what foods are healthiest for their children, and it?s best to have children taken to special dinner centers where their intake of junk foods and fatty calories will be limited? Should we further claim that parents do not know what morals to instill in their children and create a specialized morality center for children to attend on Sundays?

Trust the parents, Matt. They really do know best.

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There are, for example, a

There are, for example, a large number of parents who would strongly prefer that their children not be taught the theory of evolution. A market-based school system would increase parental utility by satisfying this particular preference, but it would also lead to children receiving dramatically worse science education. Etc.

Of course, if you live in Georgia, you can't learn the theory of evolution unless you go to a private school.

Yglesias is right that, given greater choice, some children will be hurt by the bad choices made by their parents. But I'm willing to bet that, on average, parents make better decisions than politicians do, and, in the state-school monopoly, all decisions are political.

Should we extend this

Should we extend this argument further... ...parents don't know what foods are healthiest for their children, and it's best to have children taken to special dinner centers where their intake of junk foods and fatty calories will be limited? ...parents do not know what morals to instill in their children and create a specialized morality center for children to attend on Sundays?

These are excellent conclusions. They follow directly from the socialist mentality that has no problem resorting to coercion when results and reality don't meet one's expectations. Too many poor? Tax the "rich"? Reading scores down? Debase the tests. SOME parents are "bad"? Limit the choices and power of ALL parents. Results aren't what WE had hoped for? Tax and burden EVERYONE more.

Great post, Jonathan. It is

Great post, Jonathan. It is important to note that Matt is arguing against utility, and for some other standard. Matt apparently concedes that vouchers would maximize utility, but that his preference of "academic performance," which as you point out, is dubiously measured by standardized tests, should supercede parental happiness.

Now, Matt could theoretically defend utilitarianism by claiming that the benefit to society of better academic performance is large enough to outweigh the loss of parental happiness. Milton Friedman and others have rejected this argument, on the grounds that the positive externalities of a better educated society are already internalized enough by parents to lead to near-efficient market outcomes. Plus, it seems extremely paternalist to claim that the philosopher kings - I mean, policy wonks - know what is better for children than their own parents.

I see education as an

I see education as an enjoyable and fulfilling lifelong process, and on reason I blog is that helps me achieve this particular goal.

Jonathon, I am in total agreement with you on the above statement, and I enjoyed this post immensely.

Interesting that whenever

Interesting that whenever educational issues are discussed, nobody ever seems to give a moment's thought to what children might want.

Do we have to solve the entire problem of the State treating the entire population like personal property before we can even address the problem of adults treating children likewise?

Of course, if you live in

Of course, if you live in Georgia, you can't learn the theory of evolution unless you go to a private school.

Really? There's no way to get a copy of The Origin of Species or The Selfish Gene in Georgia?

When people discuss educational policy, they seem to be operating under the assumption that education occurs only in school, when very nearly the opposite is true.