Skip to main content
Business Observer Friday, Nov. 24, 2017 4 years ago

Libertarians: Don't blame us for school choice disappointment

True school freedom, says a leading think-tank and school choice advocate, takes true dedication.

By Neal McCluskey | Cato Institute

The headline of Megan McArdle's latest Bloomberg View piece stings, at least for a libertarian whose job is to advance educational freedom: “We Libertarians Were Really Wrong About School Vouchers.”

Ouch! But to this I say: Speak for yourself!

To be fair, I don't know how things work for big-time columnists, but there's a good chance McArdle didn't pen her own headline. Pubs need clicks, and the shrewd marketers at Bloomberg were no doubt well aware that such an inflammatory header would draw in all roughly 10 professional libertarian school choicers, boosting readership by huge hundredths of a percent. And it is worth saying: While I'm not sure you would call them libertarians, John Chubb and Terry Moe's Politics, Markets and America's School's was seminal in launching the modern choice movement, and they did assert that choice would be a “panacea.” If that is what libertarians expected from the tiny choice programs we've gotten so far, yes, we were wrong.

But that is not what libertarians should have expected.

The fact is we have not even come close to getting what we need — real, broad freedom, which McArdle and lots of libertarians call “the market.” (I've decided, by the way, that a “market” is a horrible way to conceptualize what libertarians want, because it implies education is all about efficient financial transactions. What we want is full-on human freedom.) None of the voucher, charter, scholarship tax credit, or education savings account programs we have gotten have even come close to a free market, as many libertarians have been decrying for decades.

How far are we? Thankfully, you don't have to dig into old books to find out — we give you the lowdown in “Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas” (available in free PDF version or wherever fine books are sold!) Coulson was a leading critic of the kinds of hamstrung programs many choice supporters lauded for years — a few thousand kids with small vouchers here, public charter schools there — and the book contains multiple chapters examining what is needed for a true free market. As the Heartland Institute's George Clowes lays out:

• Parental choice of school;
• Direct parental financial responsibility;
• Freedom for educators to establish different types of schools;
• Explicit competition among educators;
• The profit motive for educators — and the need for a reliable revenue stream;
• Universal access, including low- and high-income families; and
• Per-pupil funding comparable to the public schools, with the funding following the child.

Man, are we far from a market! Charter schools cannot teach devotional religion and are part of the same state standards-and-testing accountability regimes as traditional public schools, cramping how meaningful a choice they can be, or how free their educators. Meanwhile, full per-pupil funding rarely makes its way out of traditional public schools and into charters, and establishing a new school can often be an excruciating and ultimately futile effort.

How about private school choice programs?

The good news, at least in theory, is “private” means “real choice,” with schools free to teach whatever they want, how they want. And they come closer than charters, with religion allowed, and sometimes no state testing-based accountability.

But some programs require state testing and boot schools that don't get good grades — Indiana has about 35,000 voucher students, and those rules — and others have less stringent requirements, but testing nonetheless. Even more handicapping is that choice programs are usually poorly funded relative to the public schools and have mandated or de facto enrollment caps due to eligibility requirements or funding limits. In D.C., for instance, a voucher is worth around one-third of what is spent per-pupil in the public schools (and significantly less than charters) while enrollment is capped at about 2,000 students by the program's budget. And allowing the profit motive to work is seen as the Mark of Cain, even though it is the lynchpin for taking quality and innovation to scale. 

As a libertarian it is easy to get depressed, but only because we've barely scratched the surface of freedom. Indeed, the evidence even from this sad state of affairs strongly suggests freedom works.

For one thing, Andrew Coulson analyzed the “market-ness” of education systems around the world — where school choice is often embraced more warmly than the home of Cowboy Capitalism — and he found that the more market-like a system, the better the outcomes. We have seen that in the U.S., too, where the “gold-standard” research has typically found that that choice delivers slightly better test scores, and much higher graduation rates, at a fraction of the cost of traditional public schools.

Even the research McArdle cites to help explain why choice has turned out to be a bummer — a study of centrally managed choice among only public high schools in New York City — suggests that the schools people choose produce better academic outcomes. It's just that parents seem to prefer schools because they have better performing students rather than explicitly greater learning gains. But it turns out that signal works: “We find preferences are positively correlated with both peer quality and causal effects on student outcomes.”

Of course, what should ultimately thrill libertarians — and everyone else — about choice is not test bumps or dollars saved, but that it is the only education system that lets all people pursue what they believe is important in education without having to impose their views on everyone else, or live under constant threat of having someone else's values imposed on them. It is the only education system consistent with a truly free and equal society.

Megan McArdle is absolutely right to be disappointed that we are not where we need to be in education. But that is not because libertarian ideas are a bust. It is because we are so far from seeing them fully implemented.

Neal McCluskey is the director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom. This column originally appeared on Cato's blog.

Related Stories