Rick Hess on How to Think About School Choice

by Reihan Salam

The latest issue of National Affairs has a characteristically excellent essay by Frederick Hess of AEI on the promise and more importantly the limits of school choice. I can’t do Hess’s argument justice, but I will touch on a few themes.

School-choice advocates, according to Hess, have tended to overstate the potential benefits of charter schools and vouchers. And this has strengthened the hand of politically powerful choice skeptics:

 

Since reformers have suggested that the mere presence of choice will bring about dramatic improvement in schools, the expectation has been that the simple fact of having an alternative — even inadequately funded vouchers, or charter schools hog-tied by regulation — should yield demonstrable gains in academic achievement. And so, for the past 20 years, the question of whether school choice “works” has been understood to mean simply whether a school-choice program boosted reading and math test scores in a given year.

The need to answer this question with an unequivocal “yes” has forced choice advocates into bizarre contortions and short-sighted thinking. The same can be said of opponents, whose insistence, in the face of all evidence, that school choice is harmful has led them to ignore its real achievements.

Yet the longer-term questions of market design and implementation are ultimately more important. A vibrant market in K-12 education would require more than charter schools or vouchers. It would require a wide range of institutions that would allow effective approaches to scale up and ineffective approaches to wind down, and it takes time to build those institutions. One can’t help but think of the post-Soviet transition. The collapse of communism didn’t suddenly create the trust, the skills, and the oversight, in the private sector and the public sector, that make a market economy work. 

What has made Silicon Valley a locus of entrepreneurship is not that it has a “freer” marketplace than other American cities, but that it has attracted over decades the investors, researchers, and networked expertise necessary to develop and sustain high-quality ventures. Experience has made clear that such ecosystems don’t necessarily spring into being unbidden, and that they sometimes need to be consciously cultivated. Even in choice hotbeds like Milwaukee and Washington, we still do not see many growth-oriented providers or savvy investors screening potential new entrants and nurturing those with the most promise. Meanwhile, too little is being done to help new education providers find facilities, negotiate political obstacles, or leverage labor-saving technologies. Ventures like New Schools for New Orleans and The Mind Trust in Indianapolis represent pioneering efforts to clear bureaucratic obstacles, attract talent, and cultivate networks. Such efforts are multiplying across the land, spurred by supporters like the Gates Foundation and the NewSchools Venture Fund, and aided by federal policies like the Race to the Top program. These are promising developments — and they deserve more attention and care from reformers.

Markets flourish in no small part because of specialization. Firms outsource non-essential functions and focus on their core competencies. In most sectors, we see dramatically different outcomes for firms using the same raw inputs. Different organizational strategies are embraced, and the winning formulas generate profits that fuel expansion. We have a need for more specialized, focused schools, as Hess explains. And we also have a need for entrepreneurial firms that handle teacher recruitment and other functions that can be centralized and made more efficient. 

Hess offers a non-polemical, clear-eyed look at the evidence from various experiments with vouchers and charters:

It is far from clear that school choice will necessarily offer broad, systemic benefits. Choice has not inspired hordes of charter-school operators to develop outstanding alternatives; there is no evidence that charter schools, on average across the nation, are better than district schools. Moreover, there is (at best) only very modest evidence that choice programs, in and of themselves, prompt school districts to become more productive or cost effective. There is, however, fairly clear evidence that school districts do respond under sufficient duress and that high-quality charter schools will emerge under the right conditions.

And he explains the limitations of the social justice strategy that choice advocates have embraced thus far: heavy on moral indignation and light on explaining the benefits of a more productive educational system for all Americans, including those who don’t have school-age children, choice advocates have failed to persuade most voters that they should care about educational reform. The people who are actively engaged in the debate, as a result, are a handful of education reformers and a vast number of public sector workers with a financial interest in business as usual. The parents of inner-city schoolchildren have far less political clout, and suburban parents have already exercised their right to choose their schools. If anything, suburban parents are worried about how comprehensive school choice might threaten their property values. We can demonize these parents. Or we can explain to them why even the best suburban schools could be better and more cost-effective with the right institutions in place.

At the end of the essay, Hess sketches out a more constructive path for school reformers. I strongly recommend reading his thoughts.