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January 16, 2006


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Kimball Corson

Greg writes,

"Correct me if I'm wrong but are you really arguing that public schools in a voucher system would have the right to turn away any students that they wish so long as they don't illegally discriminate? Doesn't that mean that the some students could find themselves without a school to accept them or with the only school willing to take them hours away?"

I respond:

Greg, I have not thought that one through. My initial reaction is that schools that specialize should not be required to take all student. A school for the gifted should not be required to take the retarded, for example. Also, schools should be able to kick out students who have continuing behavioral problems. (Schools will likely develop to handle such problems.) Schools with very high academic standards should not be required to take students of poor achievement, too. That said however, I think we can still have a system where everyone finds a good place for himself or herself. As for driving, to be sure choice will likely require more driving, but people can also, as they do now, move to schooling convenience.


I respond to Kimball's thoughtful responses to my arguments. Hers are in quotes.

"But having to take the kids in a school’s district is a part of the monopoly problem.
This is so because the school is not able to take kids from anywhere, and have kids in the district cannot go anywhere (without double paying), as would be the case under a true state-wide voucher plan."

Kimball obviously misunderstands the difference between a monopoly and an entitlement. The schools have to take everyone because everyone has a state constitutional right to an education, not because they are funded publicly. If a state wanted to, it could create a totally private-funds-based system, and place on that system the requirement that anyone who walked through the door at any school is entitled to an education there, and we would have the same situation. If your complaint is that the states mandate education for everyone, then monopolies are not your enemy.

"The measure of success of any school is not its absolute level of student achievement, but how well it does with what it gets or can attract. We cannot and do not expect graduates of a primary school for the retarded to perform at the same level as those of a private primary school for the exceptionally bright. That would be foolishness of a type implicit in the idea of no child left behind. The issue is more one analogous to value added. Chicago’s law school, for example, according to the Leiter Reports, does an excellent job of educating its students and they place out in jobs and bar passage rates exceptionally well and ahead of, for example, students of most other law schools with higher mean LSAT scores. The issue is performance with the students a school can and wants to attract. In a developed competitive environment, schools would specialize and target subclasses of students and because of their specialization and developed special competences, do a better job with the students they target than the public school system now ever can. We are not taking about trying to make Einsteins out of kids with room temperature IQs. However, the market mechanism would make sure all are provided for and provided for well. All would have the same state financial support which is pretty sustantial."

Kimball here has dodged my economic criticism of her analogy to office supply stores by answering a question that I did not pose: whether we should measure student achievement on an absolute or a value-added basis. I totally agree with Kimball's "response," but it does nothing to refute my point that public schools have no control over whom they serve and what level of services they provide. State and federal mandates control curriculum and instruction, which are the services required of the public schools, while Office Depot controls its own service level.

As this issue is more directly addressed by Kimball's introduction, I'll address that. Legal education (of which I am a recent graduate) is only slightly more analogous to public education than Office Depot. The reason, again, is the level of internal choice that can be made at each school, and the lack of state or federal mandates that law schools bear. Law schools choose their students. They do not accept everyone who applies. No one is entitled to a legal education (See Grutter v. Bollinger). In contrast, everyone is entitled to a public education. When everyone is entitled to something, the delivery of that thing will necessarily be less efficient and effective because people will be less assiduous about seeking it. The proof of this phenomenon is the existence of compulsory attendance laws. If people in general were motivated to seek the best education possible, we would not need such laws, but every state has one. Apples and oranges.

That being said, legal education, even with its internal decision making superiority, is much more of a monopoly than public school K-12 education. Every state allows private schooling, home schooling, charter schooling, and tutoring to compete with its public schools to serve a portion of the population. Legal education is a closed system, controlled by accreditation boards. The same is true for the delivery of legal services. Try to tutor someone in law sometime and see if the state allows that person to sit for the bar. Try to advise someone sometime (if you're not a lawyer) on the best way to word his will. You'll be in jail for the unauthorized practice of law before you can say "free market." This situation exists because states and accreditation boards realize that, with no regulation, the delivery of legal services and legal education will lead to ordinary people being screwed out of their money by incompetents. Thus, it is entirely possible that the monopolistic nature of legal education and legal services is what makes their delivery so effective. In fact, it's the perfect system--a monopoly with no entitlements dragging it down. You can't say that the competition between schools distinguishes legal education from public education unless you are also willing to concede that allowing public schools to compete with each other would lead to similar results as would creating a pure, market-driven system.

"This misunderstands how the voucher system would work. The problems here that Scott recites are problems, not of a state-wide voucher system, but problems of the monopolistc structure of the present system as it unsuccessfully tries to compete with a parallel, but otherwise handicapped market structured system of private schools."

Well, they are the problems of a union-owned, entitlement-driven system, not necessarily a monopolistic one. Describing the private schools as "handicapped" in the comparison is truly farcical.

"That is because economists understand how competition works and lay people too often do not. Bad public schools now have no incentive to do better. They are a protected monopoly. Threatened with students and jobs loss, the incentive to perform better becomes marked and bad schools will improve under a competitive voucher system, not just sink to the bottom and go out of business as Scott suggests. Indeed, some public schools may rise to the top in the market segments in which they compete and some private schools may fair less well. The problem is the failure to understand how competition works."


"Again, Scott’s view reflects a lack of understanding of the competitive process in the latter regards and correctly notes adjustments take some time in the former regard, but not necessarily years. However, we do not forego adjustments because of transitional bumps where the end result is a big improvement. To have a nicer home, we must undergo the pain of moving, for example. Further, Scott again assumes the bad public schools will stay bad and slowly sink to the bottom before going out of business. I have already addressed that likely non-problem. Further, under the voucher system the kids are not “trapped.” They can leave and go to another school. Also, some new private schools will develop. Scott invariably assumes a static, non-competitive environment in which to make his arguments and this is a mistake."

Kimball is still making the same faulty assumptions that generated the portions of my comment that she quoted. I was pointing out the flawed nature of the assumption that bad public schools would shrink out of existence with no educational casualties along the way. Kimball prefers to assume that these schools would only improve after they lose their best students to private or suburban public schools, but at least as many would get much, much worse, especially after the institution of a market-based system allowed the public to feel less guilty about their failure. The problem of bad schools needs to be addressed, but this solution will only harm the students truly left behind in those schools for lack of parental initiative, or lack of transportation, or simple lack of motivation.

Regardless of how comprehensive a voucher program is, many students will not take advantage of it because they can't. Not everyone can just pick up and move any time they want to make a change. Most truly are "trapped" in their surroundings. Look at New Orleans. You could put a hundred new private schools in Metarie, Slidell, and Covington, and inner city kids trapped in the failing public schools of Orleans Parish would not use them. To those students, the suburbs are the other side of the galaxy. Most have never left their neighborhoods. You're telling me that these students--the ones truly failed by our system and society--are going to take the initiative and seek out the best possible schools for themselves. That's naive.

Kimball posits that I assume a static, noncometitive environment, but what I truly do is acknowledge that many will not take advantage of any competitive options out there, and they will stay in their local schools until those schools go under, if that ever happens. You can't ignore the collateral damage that such a reform would cause. Maybe the true market system is the answer, but there certainly will be consequences in the transition, and these consequences will be far more serious than having to move your own belongings into your newer, bigger house.

"Now instead of having nowhere to go, the students have more private schools to go to than they need, in Scott’s view.

Transitional bumps are to be expected, but actually markets adjust pretty quickly and there is nothing to say private schools will mistakenly multiply ten fold overnight. If a new private school fails to perform, it should loose its students, just as should equivalent public schools. Transitional problems are never a good argument to block substantial improvement. The problem is competition is never given a chance to perform and adjust because those with monopoly interests do not want that or the competition. Also, there is no reason competition cannot be reasonably regulated to avoid foolishness or fraud. The system in Florida was hamstrung and bludgeoned almost at birth. Many people wanted vouchers to fail."

First of all, as to the tenfold increase, I was offering a hypothetical. I expected that to be understood on a law school blog.

Second, "transitional bumps" is a glib way of minimizing the collateral damage that I wrote of above. I agree that transitional costs are not a good reason to block a substantial improvement, but Kimball fails to acknowledge two problems: (1) the likely improvement is uncertain at best, and markets may actually make the system worse for a long time, and (2) voucher proponents do not engage the debate in a productive way by completely ignoring the collateral damage in blind support of a reform.

That said, I feel that, as a Florida resident, I must address the very mistaken statement about the Florida voucher programs. In fact, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was passed overwhelmingly by the Florida Legislature, elected overwhelmingly by the people of Florida. It is true that many constituencies wanted the program to fail, but none of these constitutencies had anything even approaching the power to "hamstring" the reform. The fact is that the reform was ill-conceived and rushed. The fact that few students participated suggests that the public schools were doing a pretty good job, after all. If your response to that is to say that more students would have participated if there were no requirement that the student's public school be failing, then, I agree, but then we would be solving a problem that apparently does not exist.

"Not true. See the Leiter Reports and also the selection criteria for the Japanese universities assessment. Other studies likewise measuring achievement (e.g., professional exam passage rates, job placements, etc.) recognize the same top universities. In truth, they do produce student who are better taught and achieve more. This is a red herring."

None of these reports focuses on teaching quality because this is far too expensive to measure. If the measure, then, is to be bar passage rates and other professional exams, let me hazard a guess that the top schools, with the most selective admissions as a group outperform the fourth tier. What the hell does that tell us about what students are learning? A smart student can learn the bar exam in three months. Many Ivy Leaguers do. The fact that those students' passage rates are higher says little about the quality of the instruction in their schools, and much more about their own innate intelligence and drive. The fact that students at Harvard have an easier time getting jobs than those at PigsKnuckle State also says nothing about teaching quality and the learning environment and much more about the prestige of their institutions, prestige that is generated almost totally by research achievements and longevity.

"I said top private institutions were not “directly” funded by public monies. Research grants can be publicly funded, but many are private. Few dictate what is to be researched and almost none what the research results are to be, whereas in the public system that is not how the financing is arranged. Also, Harvard’s $25 billion endowment and the large endowments of other top private universities finance much of what they do, as do substantial private tuition dollars. Public funding does not have decisional control in these institutions as public funding does in public institutions. That is the point."

The point is flawed. I was merely pointing out that public financing per se is not the problem, and Kimball has now changed the argument to the influence of public money. I have to wonder if those who agree with her statements actually think that private endowments do not influence institutional behavior in pernicious ways. Harvard has the worst grade inflation in the country. I would hypothesize that its teachers and administrators have an eye toward future donations from students who become graduates, and that they do not seek to leave these students with transcripts littered with Cs. However, it's just a hypothesis, like Kimball's hypothesis that public money has a pernicious influence on public universities, such as my alma mater, and that it is this influence, and not the intitial quality of each incoming class (generated, of course by reputational and prestige factors) that causes disparities in the rankings. Simply put, I see no evidence that the teaching and learning are any better at Harvard than at Texas A&M or Central Florida Community College. I just see better initial ingredients. Of course, Kimball's conclusion that private money is better than public money ignores the fact that many of the worst colleges in the country are privately funded, and those don't even receive that coveted federal grant money to give them the public funds taint. In fact, look at the recent law school rankings. The fourth tier (out of four) is dominated by private schools.

My point is that rankings tell us almost nothing about a school's effectiveness in teaching, so comparing the funding models of top-ranked universities to those of K-12 schools is unhelpful at best.

"Again, you cannot argue the monopolistic maladies of a public system as criticisms of the private competitive system, at least without conceding my points. Public schools, if permitted to be competitive, should have those same rights, as should all schools. A bad apple should not be permitted to spoil the barrel or handicap the progress of a class or school."

I most certainly do not concede Kimball's points, and her argument does nothing to refute my contention that her comparison of private graduate schooling to public K-12 schooling is worthless unless public schools enjoy the same freedoms as private ones. If, as Kimball appears to favor, we should be able to discard any "bad apples" from the system, where will they go? As I established above, it would be irrational for any school leader to take those students on with no additional funding. It just doesn't make good economic sense for him to do so.

"The studies include all students in whatever track, especially the eighth grade students where the results are the same. Too, perhaps the US public school system is making a foolish mistake to assume all students or nearly all are college educable and thereby promoting the fraud of community colleges for many. Tracking differences do not explain the differences in performance. If the populations of Japan and Korea are more homogeneous, other countries that do better than we do likewise have populations that are more heterogeneous than those of Japan and Korea. Homogeneity too is not a controlling factor."

First, blithely dismissing homgeneity of the school population and its links to academic achievement contradicts years of research confirming those links. Second,the countries that beat us do not do so because their sysems are market-driven. They do so because their students, not their schools, are encouraged to compete for excellence. We need to ask of our students what the countries that beat us on international tests ask of theirs. Rigor, or foreclosed options. In Germany, a heterogeneous country that outperforms us while spending less money, and in Austria, Switzerland, Korea, and Japan (homogeneous countries that ourperform us) all students have to take exams to pass from grade school to secondary school, and from secondary school to upper secondary school. The students' scores on these tests allow them to choose their educational destinies. If they score high, they may choose among many schools, and if they score low, they are tracked into the fewer schools and programs that better fit their abilities. this places a great deal of stress on them, and every European and Asian student that I have met has commented favorably on our practice in America of allowing students to choose their own paths to success, no matter how late in the process. Nevertheless, I believe that the consequence of such freedom is likely lowered expectations and lower achievement. Nothing in the data suggests to me that market competition among schools would fix that problem.

"The military is not so monopolistic. It is very competitive in regard to its recruitment and in many other regards. We do not have the old draft system we did and we now pay more to soldiers who aggressively compete for rank. The result is a much higher quality military than we had. The increase in competition in regard to the military accounts for its improvement and makes my point, not refutes it."

Kimball misunderstands my exemplar of the military as a truly monopolistic organization. A monopoly is loosely defined as a business with no competition. Nobody competes with the military to provide for the defense of our nation, so it has a monopoly on that service and on the public funds that finance it. Ignoring this obviously correct analogy, Kimball points to the competition for rank and advancement among the soldiers, and apparently the competition between the military and private sector for the best human capital, as reasons the military is so effective. I agree, but that does not make the military any less of a monopoly. It just means that the military, like the public school system, must hire the best people that it can despite low pay, poor working conditions, and constant public scrutiny, and that the military has recognized that rewarding excellence breeds more excellence. Two conclusions can be drawn from this: (1) the military, despite its monopoly on our public defense (or maybe because of it), does an exemplary job, and (2) part of the reason that it does an exemplary job is that it rewards excellence within the system for its own sake. None of this makes any of Kimball's points regarding freee market competition among providers of a service. Instead, it shows that incentivizing excellence within a monopolistic system can improve it without any market competition at all. All we need to do in public schools, then, is dump the teachers' unions and institute some real advancement opportunities for excellent teachers.

Now contrary to what any reader may think, I am not strictly an opponent of the idea of market competition in schooling. I am, however, an opponent of the overly simplistic arguments that economists generally offer in support of it. The main flaw of these arguments is the assumption that public schools are monopolies, instead of public deliverers of an entitlement, and that all monopolies or quasi-monopolies--like schools--are bad. The other major flaw is ignoring the certain, and serious collateral damage that will result from a broad-based reform of the entire system. I favor limited state experiments with market-based reforms, but I woud like to see at least one economist offer a solution for the certain collateral damage without just assuming that "the market" will take care of it.

Kimball, thanks for keeping the debate going.

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